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Travel books: From Cuba to real-life experience with fiction writers

Tribune Newspapers

"Cuba"

(Fodor's, $19.99)

In December 2014, President Barack Obama announced the easing of travel and spending restrictions on Americans and Cuban expatriates. Eight months later, the United States reopened its embassy in Havana.

In this newly revised guide, the writers point out what has changed in the new Cuba and what hasn't. On one hand, foreign investment has led to infrastructure improvements as more and more construction cranes rise "above centuries-old plazas" and the interiors of Spanish-style colonial buildings are gutted and transformed into new hotels, boutiques and restaurants. Salsa music can be heard in bars and cafes throughout the island, while Cuban jazz ("embraced, mastered and reimagined by Cuban musicians") is alive and well at numerous jazz clubs.

On the other hand, fast, reliable Internet is still "largely off the grid," and many websites are blocked. What's more, the combination of various food shortages over the years and state-run restaurants has produced "some remarkably undistinguished cooking," which may come as a surprise, the authors admit, to those accustomed to the Cuban-American food of South Florida. Sauces and spices, considered "unnecessary luxuries" during the last 50 or so years, are not common in Cuba, they note. Even so, the existence of privately owned restaurants, called paladares, has led to a renaissance of authentic traditional Cuban home cooking.

Literary travelers may want to hoist a mojito or daiquiri in honor of Ernest Hemingway at such Hemingway hangouts as El Floridita (a life-size sculpture of the great man himself overlooks the bar), La Bodeguita del Medio and Sloppy Joe's, all in Havana. It was in the latter that a Spaniard named Jose Abeal y Otero, nicknamed Joe, invented his namesake sandwich: filled with ropa vieja (shredded beef in Creole sauce).

Although travel to Cuba for Americans is easier than it's been since 1961, it still can be complicated. If you just want to go there to lie on the beach, think again. As of this writing, the U.S. government lists a dozen activities that are approved for travel to Cuba, including family visits, official government business, research, educational trips, religious activities, public performances and humanitarian projects. For a full list, see www.whitehouse.gov.

"Better than Fiction 2: True Adventures from 30 Great Fiction Writers"

(Lonely Planet, $15.99)

This fun follow-up to 2012's collection once again features travel essays by some of the today's finest and most popular writers, including Dave Eggers, Alexander McCall Smith, Francine Prose and Jane Smiley. And once again editor Don George is at the helm.

One of my favorite pieces involves a trip to the Norwegian fjords and jellyfish. When New York-born and raised writer Rebecca Dinerstein showed up in Oslo to meet Arnulf, the director of research, at the National Library of Norway and was told that he was in a cabin in the middle of nowhere — actually in the middle of a fjord — she dutifully made her way up to a small island off the Norwegian coast to meet him. The Manhattanite recalls the culture shock: climbing jagged rocks ("My feet had never felt rocks this hard and spiky") as her Norwegian hosts looked at their American guest with patience and confusion. And when Arnulf suggests they go for a swim, what's a nature-challenged Manhattanite to do even when she is told that the pristine Norwegian waters are full of jellyfish? The poisonous kind, she asks. Ja, comes the matter-of-fact reply. As it turns out, Dinerstein, stayed for a week and swam with the jellyfish every day. Jane Smiley notes that until she went to Iceland, she had never traveled alone, but because of that visit, a "Nordic tinge" remained deeply embedded in her bones, and, later, in her work.

These examples are typical of the collection as a whole: smart, witty, at times revelatory, with a lesson or two buried in the prose. But it's not just Scandinavian settings: other locations are here too, including Azerbaijan, India, Samoa and Vietnam.

June Sawyers is a freelance reporter.

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