Dos hermanas at Dos Hermanos

Plaza in Old Havana

I met her after a long day in Havana. I was alone in a bar called Dos Hermanos, in a quiet part of La Habana Vieja. It’s the other Hemingway bar. Everyone goes to La Bodeguita del Medio, where the mojito is rumoured to have originated, but I wanted something more authentic, more removed from the touristy crowds of Calle Obispo.

Havana always feels “on”. When the traffic moves and the people flow, it feels like it’s in all directions at all times. It’s hot and crowded and loud and exhilarating with its almost rhythmical chaos. But there are pockets of quiet if you know where to look. Like watching the sunset along the Malecón. Or like slipping away from the tourist crowd and sipping cocktails with strangers.

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The Malecón: Havana’s sofa

View of Havana from above

I recently spent some time in Havana, and immediately fell in love with the city’s energy and rhythm, the way the city pulses at night with music and life, and the way it attacks your senses by day. It is loud and lively and wonderful, and broken and sad and exhausting. It is everything rolled into one, and it gets under your skin.

But while La Habana Vieja charmed me, and the signs of revolution and socialism intrigued me, it was the Malecón that touched me more than anything else. This boulevard and seawall stretches along the city’s waterfront for eight kilometres, sweeping past both Havana’s old city and modern core before ending at the Alamandares river and the tunnel that leads to the leafy, luxurious streets of Miramar. But it’s also more than just a seawall. It is the city’s “sofa,” where people come each evening to share a sunset, a drink, a snack or a kiss.

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Searching for mint in Cuba

Two glasses of mojitos

“Dos mojitos, por favor.”

The bartender shook his head sadly. “No mint,” he said.

I turned to my friend Erika in horror. Here we were in Cuba, home of the famed cocktail of rum, sugar, lime, soda and mint, and I was being denied. We had just arrived at our hotel in Veradero, and I wanted to christen the start of our vacation with the country’s national drink. Heck, I had been drooling at the thought of tasting an authentic Cuban mojito since our plane had taken off from Toronto.

Perhaps because it was late in the day, we reasoned. There’d be more mint tomorrow. But the next day, the same. And again the following day.

I was in the land of the mojito with no mojito.

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Smoke rising from Eyjfafjallajokull

Part 1 of this post covered the eruption of, and my visit to, Eyjafjallajökull.

Gateway to hell

West of Eyjafjallajökull, the “gateway to hell” sits beneath a misty shroud. It is Hekla – Iceland’s most famous volcano (at least it was, until Eyjafjallajökull sprang to life) – and it has had a violent existence. Records of Hekla’s eruptions date back to 1104, with eruptions lasting weeks, months, or even years. In the 16th century, it was declared the gateway to hell when people claimed they could hear the cries of the damned coming from deep within it.

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Eyjafjallajokull eruption

April 14th marks the anniversary of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in Iceland. You know the one. The little ash cloud that disrupted flights across half the northern hemisphere. The one that was dubbed the worst travel disruption since 9/11.

I had booked my trip to Iceland right before Eyjafjallajökull blew. My original itinerary had included a camping and hiking excursion along the Fimmvörðuháls trail in Þórsmörk, where a volcanic fissure had opened up in mid-March 2010. Tour companies were taking visitors to see the exploding lava up close and when I had heard of the “tourist-friendly” eruption, my inner travel writer jumped on the story.

But before I could depart, Eyjafjallajökull exploded, news hit of closed airports across Europe, and I held my breath as I waited to hear the fate of my own flight. Remarkably, it went ahead; in a strange twist, Iceland’s international airport remained open during most of the disruption as the ash blew east, away from the airport on the west coast. And so, it was with a bit of surprise (and disbelief from friends back home) that I touched down at the black fields of Keflavik airport while a volcano smoked in the distance.

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Chris, my friend and tour guide while I was in Los Angeles, had ordered a death sentence of tequila. Called the “Blood and Sand,” I swear it’s a drink meant for those with numbed taste buds, livers of steel, or just a serious desire to do a face-plant into their peanuts. As I watched in horror, the bartender set a cocktail down in front of us, glowing purple and reeking of sugary rum. With a dramatic flourish, he raised a bottle of Jose Cuervo in the air, its spout in the shape of a bull’s head, and began pouring. And pouring. And pouring. Soon the mug was overflowing with tequila, and as he poured, the other customers yelled out “Toro! Toro! Olé!” with such ferocity I felt like I had stepped into the ring at a Barcelona bullfight and not into a pub in Hollywood.

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How to survive a night in an ice hotel

A few years ago, my then-boyfriend and I braved a chilly night at the stunning and surreal Hotel de Glace in Quebec, Canada. And while it was one of the coolest (no pun intended) experiences I’ve ever had, it was also the worst night of my life. Damp, cold, and with a pressing bladder demanding my attention, I spent the entire night in a semi-asleep state, praying for total unconsciousness.

And yet, I would do it again in a heartbeat.

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A love letter to Cape Trib

I fell in love with Cape Tribulation unexpectedly.

In all fairness, my friends and I didn’t know much about it before we went. For some reason, I had researched every stop on our big Girls’ Australian Adventure (a month-long trip with my sister and two of our girlfriends) weeks before departure, but Cape Trib had slipped my mind. So that’s why I first ignored its attempts to woo me.

I was cranky and hungover, the result of our previous night in the backpacker-central booze fest that is Cairns, when the van we were riding in pulled a quick u-y and came to an abrupt halt, kicking up a cloud of dust behind it. The driver motioned to us that it was our stop.

Peering out the window, I was met with only a dense wall of towering trees. There was no traffic, no people, no sound, except for the buzzing of flies and an occasional squawking bird. The heat was sweltering, and I suddenly felt like a cast member on Survivor, dropped in the middle of the jungle with nothing but my bikini and flip-flops, and the faint promise that someone would be back to pick us up.

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