Cuba travelogue: housing

Of the many challenges of life in today’s Cuba, housing must rank among the greatest.  There’s not enough of it, much of the available housing stock is in terrible shape, and the Cuban legal code makes it hard to legally transfer ownership — so moving households is a big challenge.

Looking down on Havana

In this shot from above (courtesy of a hotel upper-floor window), you can see how some units were turned into small yards after their roofs collapsed. Continue reading

Cuba travelogue: getting around

So given that only about 2% of Cubans own a car, and that there is no dedicated city-to-city transit system (a la Greyhound busses or Amtrak in the U.S.), how do Cubans get from place to place?

Well, basically, it’s not easy.

Two-seater

In rural areas, people can make do with more-traditional approaches — you’ll see a lot of semi-modern carriages drawn by horses out here.  I’m guessing this works pretty well for trips into town from farms in the hinterlands. Continue reading

Cuba travelogue: taking license

When people find out you’ve been to Cuba, they always seem to want to talk about the cars (at least in the U.S.).

So, just to get our footing, let’s start by talking about license plates. It didn’t used to be this simple, but relatively-modern Cuban license plates make it easy to tell whether a vehicle belongs to the government, or to a private citizen. Government vehicles have license plates with a blue strip on their left end:

Government / Regular plate (taxi) Government / Tourist plate

Since most cars and trucks in Cuba are owned by the government, you’ll see a lot of license plates like the one above / left. I’m not sure what the “B” stands for, but it’s nearly the only letter you’ll see on Cuban government plates. One prominent exception is the “T” plate (above / right) — these are for government vehicles reserved for tourists, namely rental cars.

License plates for privately-owned vehicles lack the blue strip, and always start with a “P” for good measure:

Private plate 1 Private plate 2

A minor detail, perhaps, but you’ll see where this comes into play in subsequent posts.

Indoor peak

On our trip to Iceland this January, we got to see a new perspective on a subject we’ve had earlier experiences with — lava tubes.  Formed when lava flows crusted over and subsequently drained, we’ve walked through some in Hawaii — but never previously seen one in a colder clime.

Indoor peak

So this is what happens near the Arctic Circle where there’s a lava tube “skylight” (localized collapse of the tube’s ceiling).   Continue reading

Love locks

A relatively new phenomenon (for Paris), the Pont des Arts bridge has gotten covered with “love locks” since about 2008.

Love locks

If you’re not familiar with the meme, the idea is that couples write their names on a padlock, lock it on the bridge, then toss the key into the Seine river as a show of their everlasting devotion.  The problem, though, is that the bridge wasn’t really designed to handle this kind of a load (it’s estimated that nearly a million locks, weighing 60+ metric tons, have been snapped onto the bridge).
Continue reading

The three principals

On our recent trip to the Balkans, by far one of our favorite stops was the little walled town of Korčula in Croatia. Good food, friendly people, and some wonderful cultural sights — for instance, the ancient sword dance known as the Moreška.

The story behind the dance is timeless — there are good guys, and bad guys, and a young maiden caught in the middle.  In this case, the good guys are the White King and his troops (once symbolic of Christians, later representing the Turks), and the bad guys are the Black King and his supporters (who have always represented the Moors).

The three principals

In this scene, you see the White King (Osman, dressed in red) and the Black King (Moro) facing off — with the maiden Bula trying to stop the fighting.  Bula is the white king’s fiancee, and the black king has kidnapped her, leading to a series of battles finally culminating in the white king’s victory and Bula’s happy return to her love.

The dance has roots dating back to conflict between Christians and Muslims in medieval Spain, and quickly spread throughout the Mediterranean.  For centuries, many towns staged their own version of the Moreška — but usually just once every few years, and then on the given town’s patronal feast day.  Over the years, the tradition disappeared from town after town until now, only Korčula stages it with any regularity.  But the good news for visitors is that the town stages the dance every week, year ’round (and twice a week during the summer).  The performers are all natives of Korčula, some with long and proud family histories of participation.

Should you ever get a chance to watch the show in person, I’ve got some tips for you:

  1. Don’t use a flash
  2. Sit in the seats opposite to the musicians, preferably on the center aisle, definitely near the front
  3. Be prepared for low-light photography — I took this shot at 1/80 sec. to freeze any motion, which meant ISO 4000 and f/2.8

The ghosts of Dubrovnik

A long duration (3.2 seconds) shot along the main street (Stradun) of the old town of Dubrovnik, Croatia:

Ghosts of Dubrovnik

One of the reasons for our recent trip to eastern Europe was the desire to see some still less-visited places before they’re “discovered” by tourist mania.  Dubrovnik was the one spot on our route that we knew in advance was definitely “discovered” already, yet it still didn’t disappoint.

OK, the prices there are accordingly a bit high.  But the old town’s got scenery in spades, the people are wonderful, and there’s a wealth of history to explore (its more-recent history being more than a little sad).  And as you can guess from this shot, it’s got some pretty good nightlife.  The two figures in yellow over black, BTW, really were two young women — identically dressed.