A lo Cubano (The Cuban way)

You don’t walk through Havana, you stroll dreamily but with an excitement that really only grips you when you explore a new city. And when you do that in Havana it is as though everything you have known is forgotten and you are born again, learning a new world for the first time. The streets are alive, the musica heady and emanating from the corner of every old town bar. Street vendors sing for our attention and cats lazily watch on as we make our way towards our accommodation.

We rented an apartment in the old town for CUC40 per night. Options were scarce but our casa particulares was only the equivalent of AUS$30. The owner, like everyone else in Cuba, spoke no English. Usually this is no problem. In fact we revel in determining our way deep in another culture. However today two Nicoles booked to rent this apartment…. on the same day. This added a degree of difficulty to our interactions, as our Spanish had deteriorated to phrases used most regularly on Speedy Gonzales cartoons.

Our host confused, thought she had one guest named Nicole coming in on the evening flight and so didn’t pick us up at the airport in the morning. As travellers who always pack a healthy dose of patience and good humour, my Nicole and I made our own way into the city, unruffled. In fact we were delighted to do so, finding the incursion into new realms energising.

The building in which we were to reside for the next week had a dangerous look to it. There was no predatory vibe from the people, more from the broken staircase, the exposed nails and electrics, and the balconies that hung on the dirty facade out into the street. Hung sounds too secure, more dangle precariously than hung. Held by layers of peeling paint, remnants of a chore long since abandoned.

The doorbell didn’t work so we managed to follow someone in and meandered our way through the building, at times finding ourselves moving through people’s living rooms that had somehow over the years morphed into common walkways. They smiled and nodded, unphased as we passed by their tele.

There was no one home in our apartment but through an elaborate display of hand gestures and broken Spanish that may have looked like interpretive dance to the onlooking residents, a neighbour found what I guess were the communal keys to all apartments and let us in.

We somehow managed to sign out a need also for the owner’s phone number and after much referencing of our phrase book I managed to communicate to her that Nicole was aqui ….ahora. Here? Now? A squeal that seemed like a mix of delight and panic came down the line. Then click. Nicole asked if she was coming? I shrugged.

We spent the next 15 minutes taking in turns of walking onto the balcony and waving to the children on the opposite balconies, when our host burst into the room with a flurry of hugs and a niece in toe that could translate in broken English.

We worked out the apartment had been double booked and so a couple of phone calls later by our host and we were being led through the streets of the old town to our new apartment by the niece and her boyfriend who were eager to find out everything they could about Australia. The new accommodation was equally small, dated and tired but clean and our new host was lovely. So with that sorted we headed out into the city.

The streets of Havana are clean, save the rubble of abandoned building sites. The architecture captures perfectly time and place and still in places shows glimpses of their majesty in the 1950s. Now they are run down, their brightly coloured paint faded though to charming hues. Doors, walls and balconies maintained over the last 60 years only with bits of wire to keep them functional. The sides of some buildings possess the stigmata of stairways and rooms that were once in an adjacent building that didn’t survive the decay.

People sitting in corrugated iron doorways or on the footpath in front of their house watch on as we explore their streets. Their clothes dry in barred windows as they gather around a small television. Their doors all open to the street for ventilation. As we walk towards the centre of the old town we pass the faces of those who look worn and saddened by poverty, contrasted with those that laugh and dance in a carnival of energy and pizzazz. Vintage cars pass you in the streets and add to the scene which demands you to wander wide eyed. For a moment then, you are transferred to a world that looks like Las Vegas may have looked 70 years ago…. If nothing was ever maintained again. An intriguing and maybe a little sad product of the country’s politics.

A truck commercial on television in Australia 10 years ago was for a “one tonne Rodeo.” The commercial was set to the song Guantanamera. The country’s most noted patriotic song calls to us from every other bar. It has been slightly ruined for me now as I can’t get the damn commercial out of my head.

We head to La Floridita for my Daiquiri and La Bodeguita Del Medio for my Mojito. An old lady, craggy face, hat and long cigar, the Cuban portrait personified stares at me as we walk by and then bursts into a loud cackle throwing her head back in full body display. I think I missed the joke…..  or maybe it was me?

This was our first stop since leaving Mexico. Mexico was an easy lover. She provided brilliant food, breathtaking lodging and relatively easy travel. Cuba makes you work for her love. The food is not so great, you continuously encounter money situations and the accommodation is certainly questionable. But Cuba is a seductress. She has a rhythm, a vibe that is intoxicating, that takes you by the hand and draws you into a salsa dance curb side.

The smoke from fat Cohiba cigars drifts into the air around us, tantalising our cerveza cristal and 18 year old rum before catching the cool breeze and mixing with the music from the band. We sit back on our plastic chairs on the street corner, taking it all in as the humidity of the day lifts.  Glad we made it to Cuba before the western world arrives in droves, with their oversized red shoes and golden arches; putting a Starbucks and Hooters on every other corner.

I look across to Nicole enjoying the Cuban music and sing along….. “one tonne Rodeo, guajira, one tonne Rodeo.”

An African Morning

The shimmering mirage creating a river in front of us through the barren and alien landscape. Cruising through Kuisab Canyon, the sky is bright, the koppies familiar, plummeting into a maelstrom of ravines. A series of striated earthy colour surrounds us and creates a back drop in a study of browns. The wind is given form by the dust trailing our truck…. I know this road.

I had now been guiding in Africa for the best part of a year. We head north through Namibia and make our bush camp.

Sleeping in the bush can be confusing. The groans, gasps and cries in the night of animals I didn’t know initially disorientate years of conditioning. But now I am woken by a noise. It was a familiar sound and I lay there. Still. I feel the stony ground through my swag against my back. Breathing slowly and silently, terrified. Skin prickly, I hear the throaty exhalation of a male lion. Listening intently, trying to determine distance….. “huh….. huh….. huuuuhh”. It’s close, very close. I lift my head, ever so slowly and look into the darkness. There are no other points of reference. I can’t see anything. Slowly I release my arm from my swag, and ever so stealthily I reach behind me and grab hold of the side panel of the truck. Slowly I pull myself under the truck and peek out from under it.

Another low grumbling growl comes from the darkness. My hands tremble as I reach for my swag and pull it under with me. For the next hour, I keep a silent vigil. Eventually I fall asleep, satisfied the roar of the lion is now miles from me.

I wake up, as always just before dawn, crawl out from under the truck and kick the Black Backed Jackals away from the base of my swag. I wrap my maasai blanket around me, light my cigarette and move to tend the smouldering coals of last night’s campfire to life, grinning that Rod is also under the truck up the other end. He obviously faced his own midnight confrontations with the passing pride.

My Grandfather used to tell me pre-dawn was the best part of the day. It won’t be long until the older of the tourists stir but until then this is my time. The air is crisp and so still it can noticeably be disrupted by the turbulence of movement. The sky sand washed, dust cleansed, incrementally shading to blue. I stand there, the coldest part of the night. Watching the movement of elephant, of buck, of monkey as a side show to my focus on the horizon. Gripping the maasai blanket tight around my shoulders as I light another cigarette. Enjoying the cool against my face that barges past the fluttering edges of my blanket. And then the sun pokes up. The expanse providing room for awakening clouds to battle, tumble and streak away. Levitating herds grip the pinks and dissolve into the blues.

Sometimes a passenger gets up and tries to join me in conversation “Wait…..” I would say “listen, watch” and we stand there waiting for the brightness of the sun’s orange to force a squint upon us and the heat rush our faces. Then you notice the beating of wings. The birds darting through the tousled head of the tree tops, the hum of the insects keeping one pitch, then the whisper of the morning breeze through the acacia. I never believed my Grandfather until now.

Silently we stand, connecting. It’s a failure of the western world that it becomes an awkwardness when the silence lingers and inevitably nature’s magic is broken. I’m never the first to speak but when they do it is always in some blessing of the wild. It doesn’t matter. The troops are rising, back to the fire to get breakfast organised and to discuss the sounds everyone heard last night and their hypotheses on the creatures from which they emanated.

100 Followers

Hi team,

Thank you so much for following my blog. I started this blog just over 1 month ago and I feel really blessed to have now over 100 followers.

 

I hope my stories in some small way inspire you to travel and live each day to the fullest.  I enjoy sharing them with you and sincerely thank you for your support.

Happy New Year

Robbo 

Acacia’s Parents

Everyone has that one amazing story. The one you will retell at the next hostel. Sometimes you will hear it in the first ten minutes and sometimes you will have to dig deeper, because not everyone knows their amazing story. It depends more on the listener rather than the teller.

I was thinking back over my travels. Thinking about the countless travellers I had met. One stuck out in my mind. It was a brief encounter about 12 years ago.

I don’t think I ever knew her name. If I had to guess I thought it may have been Susan. She was another encounter on my journey. Another person to pass time with, to share an experience. It was at Acacia Camp in Kenya that I met her. I only knew her for twenty minutes, though I walked away with a great respect for her as one of the people who bravely seek out a new way to live.

I asked her what she was doing way out here?

“We are back here visiting” She said. “My husband and I actually started this camp many years ago now and named it after our first born girl Acacia.” Acacia circled her legs, she had dark caramel skin with beautiful blonde curls in her hair.

Susan was a white Canadian who moved to the Mara years before to study the lives of the Masaai people. At first she wasn’t accepted by the women of the community but after time she began integrating into their way of life. It was then that she met her husband David. At least I think his name was David. He spoke no English and she no Maasai but they began teaching each other and their relationship grew.

In love and married they eventually became pregnant. Susan did not want the baby to be born in Africa so she got on a plane back to Vancouver. Unfortunately she had to take an earlier flight than David and so David made his way to Nairobi airport and caught a flight on to Heathrow for his transfer to Toronto.

David joined our conversation, he was tall and very dark with a strong look and kind eyes. David added that he had his spear taken from him when he reached Heathrow. So in full Masaai blanket, looped earlobe holes, a club , limited English and an onward ticket to Toronto he roamed Heathrow looking for his next flight.

This was the first time David had been out of his country. Another traveller who recognized him as a Masaai rescued him and directed him to his gate, telling him to sit there and when all the other people get up around him, he should follow them.

“So what was the most amazing thing for him being in a western civilization?” I asked. Susan jumped in to answer.
“Well he was so captivated by the light switch, he used to stand there and switch it on and off”

I asked David what he was thinking at the time, he chuckled subtly “I was amazed at being able to turn the sun on and off”

“Maasai men are very proud and, as a woman, you cannot teach them anything unless they request you to” Susan continues. “We were in the hospital one time when I was heavily pregnant about to give birth. I asked him for a can of coke from the vending machine. He took the coins, went to the front of the machine, assessed the coin slot and the buttons. Put the coins in and hit the button and with a clunk the can of coke rattled to the tray below him. He cautiously opened the tray, took out the coke and handed it to me sitting in a wheelchair. David then bent down and looked into the flap, straightened and moved from one side of the machine to the other then tried looking behind the machine. Nodding his head he seemed pretty comfortable that he knew what was going on. Of course I dared not clarify. Any questions he may have had were his to ask.

A few days later we were driving and we went through a McDonalds drive through. We drive up to the little box and a voice came out, ‘may I take your order.’ At this David was shocked. He had understood that there was a guy in the coke machine handing out cans and while he thought it was a terrible job to be in the box with no windows he could not believe how small the man in the box was at the McDonalds drive through. He has had to learn quickly.”

My time with Susan and David was cut short and although I got to share the briefest snippet of their life, my time with them is one that will stay with me for years to come.

I understand David now works at a hardware store in Toronto.

This is not a path!

My family and I were reminiscing over Christmas lunch when the subject of my emails home from my first overseas trip came up. It was 15 years ago now. Thought it might be fun to share an excerpt from back then. Hope you enjoy. Merry Christmas.

This is not a path!

This was the constant cry from Michael John Robinson, intrepid explorer and mountain biker.  We pick up the story of our hero as he is joined by fellow explorers Dean and Gary, setting out to traverse the Isle of Wight on a bike riding expedition.

Our exploration team set down in the port township of Ryde. The tune on all our lips was the Beatles song “He’s got a ticket to ride, he’s got a ticket to ri-i-ide.” We waved to locals as we sang and cruised out of the town. It was the kind of morning that made it important to acknowledge our fellow man. Off we set for the sunny seaside village of Sandown which was a mere 15 clicks away.

Half way to Sandown however the novelty of the song had well and truly lost its shine.  My bicycle was a heavy framed boneshaker from the seventies with a bony seat, tread-less tyres and gears that enjoyed skipping for no apparent reason.

We made it to a cosy Bed and Breakfast in Sandown owned by a likeable English chap named John Robinson. I asked him if I can call him “Robbo” and he replied “you most certainly cannot”. I told him that’s what I am called and he brushed it off, changing the topic to his garden and how we are not to park our bikes on it because he had won the Sandown Garden Competition three years running.

Let me give you a tip. You don’t have to be Don Burke to win the Sandown Garden Competition. The state of the garden is what first drew us to this B&B because it looked like the cheapest place to stay… in the world.

That evening we had a couple of hours until sunset and we could see some big white cliffs in the distance so we figured we would ride over to them, check out the view and return back before dark. Seemed simple enough.

 We took the coastal path.

 It seems though that the English do not know what a path looks like. I know what a path looks like and it doesn’t look anything like a near non-existent trail, crawling with rabbit burrows and diggings with giant saffron thistles thrown in for laughs. My bike was not built for this kind of off-roading. We pressed on however despite my protests to our exploration team and anybody along the way that would listen that this was not a path.

It was a gruelling ride but we finally made it to the top, the boys checked out the view. I checked out the freshly punctured flat back tyre. We found the puncture, repaired it and turned for home. The sun was now dipping distrustfully below the horizon.

The incident happened about 8pm I guess. There was a slight breeze from the ocean. The moonlight looked to have covered the water and surrounding terrain in tinfoil. Any remnants of the goat track we were picking our way across were now not visible at all. We got to a part of the descent that had troubled me….. ever since I struggled getting up it a few hours before. A hill, so steep I initially confused it as the cliffs we had seen from the B&B. The other two boys paused for a brief moment before giving out a “yahoo” and like lightning they were away, disappearing into the half light.

I slid to a gravely halt, alone, pausing in an extended moment of introspection. The fear beading on my forehead and tracking its way down to the corner of my eye.  In that instant I had what I could only describe as a brain explosion and began pedalling madly down into the abyss yahooing also.

It became apparent to me seconds into the downhill run that I was going way, way, way too fast for my skill level to have any semblance of control. I pump the brakes, but since my tyres were slicks, meant for the main roads and proper paths, this just had the effect of sliding my back tyre out and back in a wobbling fishtail effect.

Keeping my cool, I decided to pedal myself out of trouble. Just then the gears popped from first to last, my pedal caught the lip of a rabbit burrow and it was then that I noticed my bike flipping over my head leaving me cartoon style in mid air.

It is never the fall that hurts, only when you hit the ground, and this was no exception. It was an ungraceful fall. A spectacular fall. A fall that was surely similar to the original fall that spawned the word akimbo.

I rolled, bum over head, feet over navel. Through the thistles. Possibly near the path, who could tell. Finally I came to a halt. I lay there for a minute or two, skin itching from the burr patch I was catapulted into. I looked down at my knees they were bloodied, checked my elbows same result. Rubbed the bruises on my back, legs and shoulder. Spat the dust from my mouth and wiped the claret now trickling down the side of my head.

 I once again muttered that this is not a coastal path only this time adding a few expletives. After five to ten minutes it was clear no one was coming to my aid so I picked myself up, pronounced myself alright and continued down the hill. This time walking next to my bike.

Dean laughed so hard when I reached the bottom that I thought he was going to have a heart attack. Little did we know that this was to be my one and only bingle and my jolly friend Deano was on the brim of three.

That night we decided to have an early one because 70 km of mountainous terrain lay waiting early the next morning. Another brain explosion saw us get to bed at about 4am after checking out the local nightlife for “one quiet drink.”

Up at 7am and after a lovely breakfast made by John Robinson, who still wouldn’t let me call him Robbo, we departed.

Not much more to tell you, we saw a lot of amazing scenery, visited a castle and some abbey ruins and arrived back in London completely exhausted. Long gone are the days of jumping on my BMX off the side of gutters, my bike skills are not what they used to be.

 

In summary:

  • Bike riding around the Isle of Wight – very recommended.
  • The coastal trail up to the cliffs at Sandown – not recommended at all.

P.S. I got a full time job that I’m supposed to start tomorrow but I’m too tired so I think I’ll be a no show and sleep in. It was a very dodgy commission based sales job so I think my time will be better served looking for something else.

 

Karma Police

Karma has a funny way of repaying you for the childish antics of your youth. My mate Herman is Namibian and I found it quite hilarious over many years of travel to make subtle comments at the immigration desk as to whether Namibia was even a real country. This would often invoke twenty questions from the officials and would send them scurrying for their manual that had the list of recognised countries.

Sometimes countries, like Slovenia for example, have not updated their manual since Namibia was known as South West Africa which compounded the situation, making the following ten minutes increasingly uncomfortable for Herman as he attempted to justify the existence of a country the size of Texas; and increasingly funny to his infantile friends……

I worked out pretty quickly JFK doesn’t like me. In a bizarre occurrence that would be repeated in some shape or form over the next decade I made my way to the immigration desk. The lady behind the desk, unusually polite and upbeat processes my passport and welcomes me to The States.

“Thank you Mr Robinson, have a nice…..”

Then she stopped and gawked at the screen, before her hand reached down and furiously seemed to hit some sort of hidden button. Immediately two men appeared heavily armed and escorted me to another room sitting me down with a bunch of men who looked to be Mexican.

What an adventure I thought. Feeling comfortable I had nothing to be worried about, I sat there in the back room, scanning the men with their massive guns. Slyly glancing at the Mexicans, there were about seven of them. They sat there steely faced, silent. This is great, what a story. After a while I leaned over to the bloke next to me and whispered “what are you in for?” He however was no muy bueno! no muy bueno at all.

In New Zealand they ask you if you have prescription medicines, weapons, ammunition, explosives and narcotics as one question on the departure card. This puts the average migraine sufferer in quite a position by ticking that box. You’d think the Kiwis would separate out the prescription medicines wouldn’t you? Did I accidentally tick a wrong box I thought?

I started thinking about other countries I have been to, where they appeal to the honest jihadist by asking whether the flyer has engaged in terrorist activities. I have felt like asking if they can be more specific but thought better of it as Border Security rarely have an effervescent sense of humour. Why am I thinking about this? What’s taking so long?

Clearly keeping me here for such a long time was a tactic to start to breakdown the most hardened of criminals. I could see cracks appearing in the Mexican mafia next to me. It was probably only then that I started to feel some pangs of apprehension. Maybe this isn’t some exciting misunderstanding. I start to search my mind for some reason why I am being detained.

Maybe I should have paid that damn TV licence in the UK? Maybe I mistakenly left a debit on my Barclays card when I left England and it has caught up with me? Maybe my over stay in the UK has put some sort of flag on my file? My mind starts to race. Maybe the Malawi Gold my mates smoked in Africa has left a trace on my clothes?…. oh shit, maybe someone has put something in my luggage?

I started to sweat. What is my game plan I thought? Could I plead the fifth? I wonder how much a lawyer costs in the states? I’d probably end up with My Cousin Vinny. I wonder if Guantanamo Bay is nice this time of year?

After a while the guards took me to another room. One stood watch with his weapon trained while a man behind a computer started his interrogation. The next hour or so I was subject to the most frustrating interview ever. I will spare you the transcript but in sharing the below excerpts you can clearly see that as a younger man when I got bored or frustrated I had a tendency to get  a little cheeky.

“Do you have a drivers licence with you?”

“No”

“Why not?”

“I don’t intend to drive anywhere”

“How can you prove you are Michael Robinson then?”

“Um, it says it right there on my Passport next to my picture?”

“What nationality are you?”

“Australian”

“How can you prove you are from Australia?”

“It says it there below my picture, also on my Passport”

“Do you have any other evidence you are Australian?”

“No”

“Why not?”

“I’m confused, it’s my first time to America, you guys do use the whole Passport system here don’t you? I thought that was the generally accepted form of ID”

 

It was about here that I started overstepping the line.

 

“Sir, please evidence you are from Australia.”

“maybe by saying something?”

“huh?”

Baramundi’s a bloody big fish

“What are you doing sir?”

“Crocodile Dundee, It’s a little obscure a reference I know, but I didn’t want to use the ‘that’s not a knife, this is a knife’ line given where we are. You understand.”

“This is not a laughing matter.”

“I’m not laughing”

“How does this prove you are from Australia?”

“I don’t think it does…. but can you do this accent?”

 

Probably should rope it back in I thought.

 

“Have you any tattoos?”

“No”

“Have you had any tattoos removed?”

“No”

“Have you had any reconstructive surgery?”

“You mean like, was I born a woman?”

Answer the question sir”

“No….. Listen gents maybe if you tell me why I’m here I might be able to help you.”

Eventually, the lads gave in and informed me that the FBI are looking for a man with my name and age. I put it to them there may be more than one person with the same name as me and they accepted I was probably not the felon they were looking for.  Also the felon was African American….

They wished me well and sent me on my way to explore New York. Unfortunately, each time I enter the States, I am still subjected to the Spanish Inquisition at the immigration desk. I’m haven’t been transferred into a back room again but I usually have to put aside an hour and a half on arrival. Lately I start the engagement with “it’s not me but I know I am going to spend the next hour convincing you of that.”  It doesn’t work.

Herman finds this hilarious. As I said…. Karma.