As an avid traveler, it's natural to dream about future travels and reminisce about past travels while sheltering in place. A couple of months ago, I wrote about my last trip which was to Kenya. Today, I invite Susan Meyer to tell us about her last trip before COVID-19 and invite you to dream with me about traveling there someday. She explains how traveling to Cuba has become increasingly difficult over the past couple of years (even before COVID-19), but is still possible.
Twenty-some years ago my mother went to Cuba on a cultural exchange through SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). She came home with several pieces of original art and grand stories of art, music and culture. Later, President Obama opened up trade and tourism with Cuba allowing Americans to visit Cuba without requiring that they go with an organized group. Other countries have been enjoying unfettered travel to Cuba for many years while American’s were just beginning to explore this rich culture. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has steadily undermined our ability to visit Cuba, but thankfully it’s still possible to experience the country. In early December 2019, after years of hearing about Cuba from my friend Charles who organizes specialized tours there, I signed up.
Under Trump, the only way to go to Cuba as an individual is under the US sanctioned purpose of helping the Cuban people. What this means is that we can only patronize small businesses that are owned by Cubans. We are not allowed to patronize government-owned businesses. The Cuban government allows their citizens to have cottage industries, however the government competes against them in extraordinary ways. We went to a tobacco farm in Vinales and were informed that the Government takes 90% of their production and allows them free enterprise with the remaining 10%.
When we arrived at the Havana airport along with many Cuban Americans we saw huge tightly wound bundles of items on the turnstile. They contained appliances, bedding, clothing, personal care items and other things we take for granted but are hard to get in Cuba. Cuban Americans visit Cuba regularly and do what they can to improve the lives of their family members living under Cuba’s communist regime.
Our guide met us at the airport and escorted us in one of the classic old cars that Havana is famous for. Then we checked into our guest house in old town Havana. It was an amazing old structure featuring an old-fashioned elevator with a metal mesh door. The interior of the building had tile walls, tall doors, and extremely high ceilings. The buildings in Old Havana are gorgeous and historic and have changed little from 1959 when Castro expelled all foreigners and instituted communist rule. My husband, Jim and I took a Caribbean cruise back in 1994 that left from Ft. Lauderdale and sailed two-and-a-half days to reach Curaçao. On the way, we passed by Cuba and what stood out was how dimly lighted the island was. I mentioned this to Andreas, one of our Cuban guides, and he told us it was during the darkest days of Cuba. The USSR had fallen and could no longer support Cuba. This forced Cuba to get creative and open their doors to tourism to survive.
Today Cuba is a vibrant colorful country. In December, the magnificent buildings were being restored and the restaurants were thriving in Old Havana. Many European countries have invested in Cuba, partnering with the Cuban government to create high end hotels to advance international tourism.
We learned during our trip that Trump had recently shut down cruise ship visits to the island. Even though most ships aren’t American owned, European countries were afraid of repercussions should they ignore Trumps directive. This has had a major impact on Cuba’s tourism industry. The COVID-19 epidemic then completely cut off tourism. We are happy to have visited when we did and I hope that you will consider a trip to Cuba to experience a country with all of its contradictions and to benefit the Cuban people, when it is safe to do so.
Since a picture is worth at least a thousand words, I wanted to share some of my favorite photos below from my visit to Cuba.
by Susan Meyer
Wine Maker & owner of Rustridge ranch in Napa Valley
The secluded property, once a large thoroughbred horse ranch, was purchased by Susan Meyer's family in 1972. Now it reflects Jim & Susan's two passions: wine and horses. They continue to breed and race thoroughbreds each spring; just about the time new buds form on the grape vines, new foals are born.
Susan invites you to visit her southwestern ranch-style Bed & Breakfast with sweeping views of the vineyards, pastures, hillsides and ancient oak trees.
Food is a huge part of the travel experience for me. I often find myself organizing my schedule around meals. Sometimes I even add a second dinner as the trip nears to an end because I know how much I'll miss all the amazing dishes that I can't bring home. With chocolate, it's different. When I travel, I often seek out a local chocolate shop or chocolatier. I try some samples, then pick out my favorites to bring home and share with family and friends. It's a wonderful way to bring a flavor of the destination home. I recently connected with Jeff & Susan Mall of Volo Chocolate and they agreed to share an experience with chocolate they had abroad that changed their life.
For most of my life, chocolate was a ‘take it or leave it’ food. As a kid, I would much rather eat crispy-salty snacks than a candy bar. An occasional Reeses’ Peanut Butter cup was the exception. Going to the movies in the 70s & 80s I would enjoy a Hershey Bar, but only broken up and mixed with my warm salty popcorn.
All of my years spent as a chef and restaurant owner didn’t move the needle for my feelings about chocolate. A singular taste experience changed my perception, and that was my first bite of Mexican chocolate. It made me think of chocolate as a food, not a candy. The warming flavor of cinnamon and coarsely ground nuts in Mexican chocolate gives many layers of flavor.
In early 2015 my life as a chef collided with chocolate when my wife Susan and I moved to Mexico to run a restaurant at a small hotel near Todos Santos, Baja Sur. We brought our Sonoma County ‘Farm to Table’ ethos with us. We focused on growing and sourcing traditional Mexican ingredients & foods for our menus. One of those ingredients was the cocoa bean. It was first cultivated in Mexico thousands of years ago. In all my years as a chef I had never seen a cocoa bean. As a staple in traditional Mexican recipes, they were as readily available as onions, chiles, and corn. Our co-workers would use them to make a traditional warm drink called Champurrado. Like most chefs, my first inclination was to use them in a sauce or to crust a piece of pork. Then I asked Susan, “I wonder how hard it is to make chocolate?”
We started to experimented with beans from the Chiapas region in Southern Mexico along the border with Guatemala. Some of our co-workers came from other parts of Mexico where their families made chocolate. With their help, we made our first batch of chocolate by roasting the beans in a wood-fired oven and then grinding them with sugar and a pinch of cinnamon. It was decent, but we knew we could make it better. Slowly but surely, batch after batch, our chocolate got better and better. Before we knew it, we were making multiple batches every week and the hotel guests were buying it up. The chocolate that we made was unique. Mexican in style with its pinch of cinnamon, but also to our taste with a touch of sea salt.
We moved back to Sonoma County after having spent 1 1/2 years living and working in Mexico. Once home, one of the first things we did was start sourcing cocoa beans aka ‘Cacao’ so we could continue our chocolate making adventure. We soon learned that the best Mexican cacao doesn’t leave Mexico, so we looked elsewhere. We found amazing beans just across the border in Lachuá Guatemala, just 17 miles from Chiapas Mexico. With cacao in hand, we started Volo Chocolate in the Fall of 2016.
Much like coffee beans or wine grapes, many of flavors in cacao are determined by region where it is grown. One of the varieties of beans we use are from Lachuá Guatemala, always with a background flavor of cherry. Also like wine
grapes, the year, or vintage plays a role. Some years the flavor is of bright, ripe cherries. Other years you get more of a concentrated, dried cherry flavor. We also use cacao from Haiti which adds notes of coffee and roasted nuts.
At Volo we make eight different chocolate bars. Each is unique, but they all still have that pinch of cinnamon and sea salt. As a result, they are balanced without the bitterness that is found in a lot of dark chocolate. We use the beans from Guatemala for our 73% Deep Dark Chocolate and Chocolate Orange, which are both vegan.
We grow and process our own oranges for the candied orange. The cacao from Haiti goes into our 62% Dark Milk Chocolate. We caramelize the milk and add browned butter which turns it into something special. We also have a 62% Dark Milk bar with olive oil roasted almonds. We have won several awards for our chocolate, including two international awards from the Academy of Chocolate in London. You can find Volo Chocolate at stores, wineries and restaurants in Northern California and beyond. It is also available online at VoloChocolate.com.
We hope you have the opportunity to try our unique chocolate soon!
by Jeff & Susan Mall
Chef & CHOCOLATIER
While living in Mexico we fell in love with the flavors and soul of Mexican chocolate. We enjoyed many wonderful hours experimenting with the many ways we could bring out the flavors through various techniques and ingredients. It wasn’t long before we created a great “bean to bar” craft chocolate recipe.
Once we returned home to Sonoma County we decided to start our chocolate making business with all of the love and passion that fine chocolate deserves.
Recently I spoke with my host agency, KHM Travel Group, about ways our clients can support us until we can all travel again. They wrote this wonderful article that I'm proud to share. Many of these actions would apply to any small business even if you don't have money to spend. So if you're are tight on funds and have plenty of time, please consider spending a little bit of your time to take these actions to support your favorite small businesses.
It’s no secret that the global pandemic is having a major impact on the travel industry. Airlines, cruise lines, and tour operators are drastically reducing their 2020 offerings. Along with that, independent travel agencies are assisting with cancellations and changes affecting several months of their clients’ vacation plans.
How can you continue to support your travel agent, even if you aren’t able to travel right now?
1 – GET SOCIAL
Social distancing doesn’t apply to social media. Your travel advisor is still offering inspiration and information for future travel and would love to have you follow them on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Join the conversation by commenting, liking, and sharing posts from the travel agency’s business page.
2 – BE PATIENT
Travel agents are working harder than ever to navigate constantly changing policies from governments and travel suppliers. Unfortunately, cancelling clients’ reservations consumes a lot of time and energy, but generally results in the agent receiving little or no compensation. If you need to adjust your travel plans, please be patient and know that your travel advisor is on your side.
3 – WRITE A REVIEW
If you’ve appreciated the great service your travel advisor provides, ask where you can post positive feedback. Leaving a stellar review on Google Business, Yelp, Facebook, or other sites helps potential clients understand the value your advisor provides and generates new leads for future business.
4 – SPREAD THE WORD
Referrals are another valuable source of future business for your travel agent. If they aren’t traveling at the moment, your friends and family may be planning their future adventures. Do you know an engaged couple that will be shopping for a honeymoon? How about someone with a milestone anniversary coming up? Or perhaps some grandparents wanting to take a vacation with the grandkids they’ve been missing? Don’t hesitate to share your travel advisor’s name and contact information with them, and a shout-out or tag on social media is always appreciated.
5 – SAY “THANK YOU”
Think about your favorite travel memories. Did a travel agent help you plan any of those trips? Agents love knowing they helped create a special moment in your life. A quick message of thanks means the world to them—and if it’s accompanied by some chocolate, well, that probably wouldn’t hurt.
Despite the current limitations, our desire to travel and explore is stronger than ever. When it’s time to book your next getaway, whether it’s to the next state or across the ocean, remember to support your travel agent!
Sharing my travel experiences and insights