Incidents as We Travel West

On our return to Florida we spent two days in St Petersburg visiting with Carol’s brother and sister-in-law.  The KOA at Madeira Beach that we stayed in is tucked in between an industrial strip and the water.  It is bordered by the Pinellas Bike and Foot Trail also.  It is a  nice enough KOA, but it’s location makes it one of the priciest I can remember.  It had a lot of amenities that we have no use for generally as they are for families with young children.

On our way back from Miami, the vibration from the tires on the RAV4 which I had flat spotted December ‘08 became far more severe.  I started to worry that something would come apart and I drove with both hands firmly on the wheel.  Nothing bad happened.  The next day during our visit, Art had some errands and I said I would drive and find a tire place to check out the tires.  We to went a local place and they got the car up on a lift and within minutes I was buying two new tires.  The left rear had a flap of rubber peeling off the tread! and right rear was not that bad, yet.  The car drives so smoothly now it almost feels like new.

Our visit was very satisfying and Carol appreciated having the additional time with her Art and Natalie.  This was not a planned  visit and we did not think we would see them until they come to Rochester in May.  Bonus!

Leaving St Pete we decided that going up I 75 looked boring and we chose to take 19, the local highway out of town and up the coast.  We had hopes of seeing more of Florida, and we did.  Boring!  We have done that and do not need to do it again.  There was not much to see and the only benefit was the opportunity to keep our speed down without hindering traffic on the interstate.  We spent the night in a Wal Mart parking lot in the Panhandle.  When I made a routine walk around  someplace down the road from there the next day, I noted that a little black cap on the passenger side arm of the tow bar had gone missing.  I did not think much about it as the lock was set firmly.

We decided to make a two night stop in Louisiana so we could satisfy two desires.  Carol wanted to do a Swamp Tour and we both wanted to go to Shabbat services in Lafayette, if there was a place to go.  We found our way to Poche Fish’n Camp outside of Breaux Bridge LA and from there with some difficulty we found our way to Lake Martin where we joined a group with Butch for a two hour swamp tour that turned into a three hour tour. The weather was perfect and no one, even Butch, seemed to be in a hurry to get back to shore.

For more pictures Click Here

We cleaned up and Carol finished a bean salad for the covered dish dinner that Temple Shalom was having.  We had a wonderful evening, the dinner was fine, Rabbi Barry Weinstein and all those present made us feel welcome and we made a lot of friends.  It was a bit strange attending a Friday night service with a Torah reading, but I do know that is common in smaller congregations that are glad to get together a minyan once a week.  If we are passing through on Shabbat again we will certainly stop there.

Saturday morning found us in a very different setting.  Daniel, a fiddler who was at the Shabbat service, had told us that there was a Zydeco Breakfast at Cafe des Amis

in Breaux Bridge starting at 8:30 AM.  We had to go!  Great music, good food and plenty of dancing. We were back at the coach preparing to roll by 11.  After hitching up in the driveway we had our first oh-oh!.  That missing cap was more than just ornamental apparently.  The passenger side bar did not latch as we pulled onto the highway.  After some finagling with the coach and the car, we managed to get the bar to latch and we set off down the road wondering if it would hold, not the most comforting thought.  I’d been wanting a new tow bar for a year to get a better release mechanism, but had not been able to justify the expense.  Now I had my justification, but no local dealer had one in stock.  The nearest place I could find what I wanted was Camping World in Houston, TX, only four hours down the road.  I called and verified that they were open until 5, and open on Sunday at 11 and they had what I wanted in stock.  Without pressing too hard, we arrived there at 4:45 and by 5 Pm I was installing the replacement on the back of Gee 2.  I have replacement parts to rebuild the old bar and will fix it up when I get a chance and see if I can find  buyer.

Next stop Goose Island State Park.  I will post that later.

Cuba – or A Trip through Gate 19 1/2

On route to Havana we arrived at Miami International Airport the night before by car from St Petersburg, FL.  We needed to be there for an orientation dinner at Rare Steak house in Miami Beach.  We are told to meet at the double escalators in concourse J at 6 AM.  There is no flight information, or gate information and no one seems to know what airline we will be flying on.  Of course there will be no posting of a flight to Cuba anyplace in the airport.  Gate 19 1/2 (read your Harry Potter)!

Finally at the counter we learn it is a TACA Airline charter flight and the Airbus A320 is full with our 16 and the rest Cuban Americans going to see their families and carrying all kinds of baggage for them.  The paperwork is standard international stuff and the flight is an easy 60 minutes.  Arrival is at Havana’s Jose Marti field, instead of the main terminal we roll up to Terminal 2, reserved for the Miami flights.  Outside the line up of billboards are all anti US propaganda, this is just an introduction to barrage of propaganda on every billboard we see.  An hour later after passing though customs and immigration we board bus 272 Rudolpho at the wheel and Aliane at the microphone. 

Our first stop is the Plaza de la Revolution with the famous image of Che Guevara and the memorial to Jose Marti in the middle.

After a stop at the Memorial to the “Assassinated Ethel and Julius Rosenberg” we finally were taken to the Parque Central Hotel – there was no toilet on the bus! 

After lunch we had several hours free, allowed because there was no way to assume the flight would be on time or how long we would spend in formalities of entry.  Carol and I set off on our own to explore the neighborhood which is old Havana.  Oh my! everything is decrepit.  Buildings look like a sneeze would bring them down.  We walked the length of the Prado, from the park in front of the hotel to the harbor waterfront.  We returned by the route the bus had taken on Agramonte, past the museum of the Revolution – which we were to visit later in the trip. 

We continued our walk to The Floridita a bar that claims to have invented the daiquiri and was a haunt of Hemingway when he was in Havana.  I am told there is a statue of him at the bar, but the smoke, crowd and noise kept us out.  Everyone smokes cigars in Havana, except Carol and me.  At the Floridita we picked up Obispo Blvd a lively shopping street where it is possible to buy many items that are not part of the standard ration.  This is a place where the only currency is the CUC  or Convertible Peso.  These are equivalent to about $1 US and the internal conversion rate is 25 Cuban Pesos to 1 CUC.  Standard salary is 250 Cuban Peso per week.  An ice cream cone on the street was 1 CUC.  Cubans with no source of hard currency don’t have many ice cream cones!  We each had one, they were delicious and we did not get sick!

Back at the hotel we sat with feet up for thirty minutes and then had a briefing by Ariel and Johanna, JDC Staffers from Argentina, on what we could expect to see and how the economy did (or did not) work.  Unfortunately as soon as the lights went down we both took turns drifting off to sleep.  Refreshed, we boarded the bus for the Hotel National which has hosted many famous people dating back into the 30’s.  This includes many stage and movie stars as well as famous gangsters such as Meyer Lansky.  We were welcomed with Mojitos (a light rum drink) as we would be where ever we went.  Dinner was wonderful and Carol was surprised when the beautiful baked potato they brought her turned out to be an appetizer and was followed with a wonderful plate of grilled vegetables.  This was to be the story of the trip, Carol had wonderful vegetables where ever we went.  Our food was also very good.  I did not expect to have steak in Havana.  I am sure it cost a month’s salary or more in local currency. 

After a night’s sleep we started Friday with visits to the two Jewish Cemetaries (Ashkenazic and Sephardic) located on the edge of Havana.  For all the pictures Click Here. Both of these cemeteries have their own Holocaust Memorials.  There are signs of decay everywhere and some signs that work is underway to repair some of the damage.  All of the workers are government  employees and all burials are paid for by the government.  The stones and monuments are paid for privately. 

On the drive we pass by a monument to Castro’s hubris.  Havana had been offered the chance to host the Pan American Games in 1991, this occurred just as The Soviet Union was failing and pulling the props out from under the Cuban economy.  The four lane divided highway to the stadia is crumbling like all of the infrastructure we saw.  Our first sight of the biggest stadium was the giant light stands reaching into the sky, they seemed strange at a distance and soon we could see why, the lights were all gone.  As we got closer we could see that everything else was showing signs of abandonment as well.   I have no pictures as we did not stop and the view from the bus was fleeting. 

Next stop Adath Israel, the Orthodox Synagogue.

There are more pictures.  This entrance stands out on a street of dilapidated unkempt buildings.

We met the cantor/treasurer/leader (not the President) and visited the small chapel they use daily and weekly and then upstairs to the large main sanctuary that is only used for community gatherings and holidays.  There is also a workshop for elderly and we found a doll they had made to buy, it is now added to the various other soft toys that gather on our bed during the day.

We had lunch with community members at a wonderful covered outdoor restaurant.  We had a chance to learn about life in Cuba.  Melanie, who sat with us, teaches dance to the youth and is a youth leader for the community.  She lives with her husband, her two children with him and his two older children and the eldest son’s wife in a two room apartment (that is rooms not bedrooms!).  They are reasonably well off since they do not have to share with a fourth generation, yet!  Apartments stay in the family.  they cannot be bought, sold or transferred out of the family.  According to our guide, Alain – himself a government employee, the only way to acquire an apartment or house is to inherit it.  He lives with his girlfriend in her family apartment, she has no family so it is just the two of them.  They are on the third floor of a five story building with a non functioning Otis elevator.  It cannot be repaired so long as the embargo continues.

After a break, which we used to rest a bit, We returned to The Patronata for Shabbat Services and dinner.  After a brief return to the hotel we set out for a late night adventure.  We went to the show at the Tropicana.  This show has been given nightly since 1939.  For more details Click Here.  We enjoyed the spectacle and returned to our hotel exhausted, but ready to forge onward in the morning. 

On Saturday we resumed seeing sites where JDC is working such as the Sephardic Hebrew Center, which is the smallest and least restored of the three centers in Havana.  We also had a visit to a farmer’s market, one of many in Havana.  Here famers who have met their quotas can bring surplus crops for sale to the public.  Generally the sales are in Cuban Pesos and as you can see even here the prices are controlled Sanitation for the meat is not!

We continued on to a visit to the Catholic Cemetery, which is a grand necropolis covering hundreds of acres and reflecting the desire of Cubans to compete for prestige even in death.  The pictures are included in the web album. 

We toured Old Havana to see the restoration work propelled by the city Historian who has a “license” to develop commercial properties and use the revenue from the properties to renovate more properties.  Sounds like a very Capitalist idea to me.  Some buildings are not likely to be restored as they house private dwellings and offer no profit motive.

That is Alain, our guide (spelling is questionable).  He took us to a Jewish “themed” hotel in the district as well.

I think I know the photographer.

We ended afternoon with a return to the Patronata to see the adults, young adults and children dance and entertain us.  We concluded the evening with a farewell dinner and chance to discuss the events we had experienced in the prior 48 hours.  We were later joined by the leaders of the community for the dinner and somehow a bus load of tourists from Boca Raton JCC ended up in our private room as well. 

Sunday saw us leave the hotel packed for departure with a stop at the Patronata for a chance to dance with the children and say goodbye.  We took the long way to the Patronata with a stop at Papa Hemingway’s House on the outskirts of town.  Here is the typewriter where he wrote standing up. On the way to the airport we stopped at the Habana Riviera and finally Lennon Square – that is NOT a misspelling.  Someone stole the glasses off the stature so there is an assigned guard with a pair of glasses he puts on the statue for an tourists who want to see it.

What we saw is a vibrant Jewish community reviving from the repression of all religion by the Castro Regime until 1992.  This is a small remnant and it is doubtful it would have any existence without the support of JDC and the goods brought in by many Jewish groups visiting.  The touring of sites and places, including the Museum of the Revolution really helped set the environment within which this community must continue to exist.  I doubt that our understanding of the community would be as complete without it.

Paul the Constructor

I guess the word has gone out that I am reasonably handy and will help with any construction project that is underway.  At our son Dan’s, among other projects at other times, I helped with the construction of a new home for their 20 chickens.  When we arrived at Carol’s bother Arthur’s home he was in the midst of assembling a piece of kd furniture (before I get the question – kd means “knocked down” or “some assembly required”). 

This project, with a well written set of directions, required a certain amount of agility and strength in the hands.  After a before dinner scotch (Glenlivet 15 year old!) and a delightful dinner to soften me up, I was invited to try my hand at the assembly.  Less than an hour later it was done; a very nice night table was added the bedroom and I had finished yet another of my traveling construction projects.  

I cannot imagine where my next one will be, but I am sure it will happen.

Next stop Cuba – I hope I don’t have to build anything there.

A Surprise Visit in Florida

As we drove along I 95 thinking about the days to come and Cuba in particular this car appeared in front of us.  We expect to see more cars like this in Cuba.


I am not sure who was more surprised.  As we looked at distance, time and bitter cold weather on the Georgia coast we started to figure where to spend some time and have some fun.  It became clear that, on the route we had chosen, we were going to pass within a mile of Deer Creek, the winter home of Shelley and Norm Topf.   A phone call confirmed that there was an empty slot right next to them available for our use.  4 hours later we were maneuvering the coach into the slot under the motorhome port on the site next to them. Shelley prepared a wonderful vegetarian soup, hot soup is wonderful in very cold weather.  We ate and talked all evening. 

Sunday brought clear crisp air.  It is still cold all over the East and deep into Florida.  We are not leaving hoses connected overnight and propane supply is an issue.  Enough with the icebox already. 

We decided to drive to Bok Tower National Monument about half and hour south.  Rather then describe them here is their web site:  Bok Tower. Although it was cool the sunlight was warm and the tower is splendid and any gardens laid out by Frederick Law Olmstead are worth spending some time in.  We were joined in this foray by Steven and Marcy Kraus, friend of the Topfs and people we have met at various FMCA Rallies.  We arrived just in time for a recorded carillon performance on the Tower carillon.  totally magnificent. 

We finished the day with dinner at Cherry Pocket Steak and Seafood.  It is an old Florida Fishing shack which looks like it is about to fall down without the help of a passing breeze.  The food was wonderful, excessively plentiful and not terribly pricey.  We rolled out satisfied. 

After a while in Shelley and Norm’s coach we are back in Gee 2 preparing to go to sleep and head for St Pete in the AM.

Road Day One and Two

Don’t worry, I am not likely to post daily, but I have time this afternoon.

We set out from Malena and Dan’s at about 9 AM.  I had chosen a Passport America (half off regular price for us cheapskates) campground south of Greensboro.  When we set up the route it looked like about 4 hours.  Short for a first day, but heading toward the coast there were not a lot of choices and no Passport America stops. 

Early on I discovered that cruise control was being intermittent.  Most frustrating at the beginning of thousands of mile of driving.  After an hour the everything in the coach was up to operating temperature and dried out and cruise resumed working as expected.  This is the second time it was not worked well after an extended storage in cold damp conditions.  I had the entire module replaced in the spring and it is no better.  I think I will ignore it until it fails again.

As we rolled we agreed that a stop at Replacements Ltd was definitely worthwhile.  Especially since we would be passing within 10 miles of it.  There is always something we need, just a month or so ago and sterling teaspoon had found its way into the disposal.  We pulled into their lot and had lunch and a wonder through the showroom and finally we bought the replacement spoon. 

An hour down the road we pulled in to Cross Winds Family Campground which is very new looking and VERY empty. As I spoke to Glenda, the owner she told me that this campground is less than two years old and that explained why they were not listed in the Passport America directory, just on their web site.  We are an hour south of Greensboro and about the same north of Charlotte NC.  The owners are very friendly and facility is very well set up.  Every site is full hookup and cable and Wifi.  The sites are level and large.  For our RV friends, if you are in the area, you might want to stay a night, especially if you belong to Passport America.

The second day on the road was mostly uneventful.  We left early and rolled most of the day to Savannah GA.  The only stop was at the Darlington Speedway Museum in Darlington, SC.  This is a motley collection of several NASCAR race cars, pictures to follow, and a Hall of Fame that is of interest to serious fans, but is poorly executed.  The best part of the stop was a quick look at the track itself.  It was a fine place to stop for lunch and the tour was only $5, Carol skipped it, so the lunch stop cost one museum entrance.

Our scare for the day was one idiot driver who is lucky she and her passenger are alive.  As we were passing an on ramp at about 62 mph (in a 70 zone) she started to pull in front of me at about 40 mph.  I honked the horn, flashed the lights and stomped on the brakes.  Carol was working with the GPS setting up our next stop and her first indication that we were in trouble was the sudden deceleration.  She had some unrepeatable things to say as our pulses slowed and I regained road speed.  I must admit to some justified road rage, displayed as an evil raised fist out the window as they passed me a few miles down the road.  I have a lot of reasons for holding my speed to 62 and avoiding these sorts of incidents is one of them.

The day ended in a mediocre campground (Biltmore Gardens) in the Savannah area.  This is our second mediocre to miserable camping experience in this area.  We like the city, but. . .

More in a day or two.  We leave for Cuba next Thursday, January 14.

VA or VT

I know when we left Rochester we drove south not east.  I know I am sitting in Dan and Malena’s driveway which is in VA.  But it feels like VT or Rochester.  The coach still has snow on the roof from the snow storm two weeks ago.  The temperature has managed to get over 40 once since we got here.  The overnight temperatures have been in the teens and my feet are cold.  Am I complaining? YES!  I am burning about five gallons of propane daily and we are keeping the living room slide pulled in to reduce the volume to heat.  Other than that everything is great.

Dan and I have been working on building a new hen house to keep them warmer.  It will not be done in time for this major cold, but we are well along.  Not sure Dan will get it set up before they leave for Mexico. 

The other night I noticed that the power from the house had gone off.  It came back on and then went off again a couple of times.  In the morning I fired up the generator and kept it going all day until the power was restored mid afternoon.   The kids kept their house warm with the wood stove and Malena even cooked on it because there was no power for the electric stove.  The only casualty so far is a frozen pipe to the cold water in the back of the coach.  No onboard showers until that thaws.  I hope when it thaws that the pipe has not been broken. 

We had dinner at the Blue Mountain Brewery with the Robbs last night (go back to one of first trips, we met the Robbs in San Antonio in a parking garage).  It was a blast to spend time with them again.  Every time we get together we are reminded how we had so much fun together on the first meeting.  Today we will take the propane tanks in for another refill and stop for lunch in the Barracks Road Mall with Bill Freedman, a high school classmate.

Lunch at Aromas with Bill was fine.  Always a pleasure to spend time with him.

OK, the pipes to the rear thawed and the temperature has risen enough to push the slide out again.  I have shoveled off the roof so I can go down the road without killing someone.  Today (Wednesday) I went to drain the holding tanks ad found the macerator (sewage pump) frozen, aargh!  Waited a few hours and the sunshine and rising temperatures (38!) thawed that so the holding tanks are now empty.  Rollout is tomorrow Thursday the 7th.

Tried to reach our grandson Josh for his 18th birthday with no luck so far.