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¡Cuba Libre!

30 December 2013

Wow!  Looking at my last entry, I see it was the last day of 2012 — meaning I very nearly went all of 2013 without a post.  Clearly blogging has not been a priority for me lately, but I did want to take some time to document something worthwhile.  I recently returned from a trip to Cuba!  I cannot hope to capture all of my fond memories here, but as I’ve done for other big trips in years past, I’ll do my best to hit the highlights.

First, the obvious question: isn’t it illegal to travel to Cuba?  To which I answer: not so!  The seed for this trip was first planted by a coworker of mine who travels very extensively.  Just in the few years I’ve known her, she’s been to Antarctica, Afghanistan, Burma, Easter Island, and more.  If it’s remote and/or dangerous, she’s been there.  And she clued me in to the fact that under a “People To People” license issued by the U.S. government, in fact American citizens can travel to Cuba legally.  The catch is that you can’t go on your own and just lounge on the beach the whole time.  You have to go with one of a few licensed travel agencies (such as the one I used, Friendly Planet), and there is a curriculum of sorts that you must follow.  You need to participate in the cultural activities set forth in the agenda, but it’s not a hindrance at all!  Unlike the throngs of tourists from every other country but the U.S., we are given access to more of the real Cuba.  We saw behind the scenes and actually learned something!  We got to meet some fun people and make new friends.  Plus there was plenty of time to enjoy ourselves in the evenings.  I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

So without further ado…

Day 1 - Shel and I headed out to Miami, the plan being to get there a few days early to make full use of the weekend and explore a bit.  Coming from the brutal cold snap the Bay Area had been experiencing, the warm and humid night air as we stepped out of the airport was most welcome.  A hop, skip, and a jump over to our hotel, and we were settled in.  Tired as we were, we agreed to just walk across the street to a Cuban restaurant.  You know, get started with the cuisine early while still in the States.  Well, my vegetarian option was a grilled cheese sandwich with three or four times as much cheese as was sustainable by the bread.  Not to be recommended.  It was late.  We were pooped.

Day 2 - We grabbed a taxi down to the famous South Beach.  I was struck by the color of the place.  Seems like most everything in Miami is turquoise and peach, including the buildings.  And the hotels all look like they were built in the 60’s.  It’s flat out there, and I was reminded of having read recently that if the sea level rises, Miami is one of the first major cities to be S.O.L.  The “Miami Vice” connection is milked at every opportunity.  We got to ride on A1A (Beachfront Avenue!).  And Vanilla Ice wasn’t kidding.  The people watching out there is no joke.  If you can forgive the Jersey Shore feel of it all, people apparently really take care of themselves there.  Men and women, all in fantastic shape, tanned, bleached, and not wearing much in the way of a bathing suit.  All strutting up and down the strip, where maître d’s harass you like carnival barkers to get you into their open-air restaurants.  We chose one and had our first cocktails of the trip, along with an unexpectedly pricey lunch.  Afterwards, it was off to the beach!  I swam in the Atlantic for the first time, which was long overdue.  Clear water and hot weather.  We walked around a bit, had some tea, and then cabbed it back to the hotel.  On the way back, I noted the many mansions on the water and the yachts to go with them.  Fits with the Rolls-Royces and other fancy cars that abound in South Beach.

It was early evening, but the day wasn’t over yet.  We were determined to have a night out in Miami, but our research uncovered no appropriate venue.  There was a rockabilly event going on 40 minutes away in Ft. Lauderdale, but that’d be a steep cab ride.  Instead, we picked the only club that showed any promise of not being a douchey techno club.  We got gussied up and headed across town again to what would be perhaps the best meal of the trip.  City Hall had such delicious food that I was genuinely sad I didn’t have room to finish it all.  So while we couldn’t find a new wave club per se, we settled on the most promising option: The Vagabond.  It was a walk through a dodgy area of town.  Probably the most unsafe I felt on the whole trip, actually.  The Vagabond claimed to have burlesque that night, but it was cancelled.  The music was every bit the douchey stuff we were trying to avoid, not to mention freestyle rapping going on out in the patio area.  All reminiscent of San Francisco’s The End Up , if you’re familiar.  Anyway, it was a bust in all senses but for one odd thing.  They have a 10-foot portrait of Morrissey making a kissy face in the middle of their main room, which is a permanent fixture there as far as I could tell.  We each snapped a photo with it of course, and in our time before admitting defeat, I noticed may other girls snapping similar photos of them kissing Moz’s gigantic face.  I quizzed each that came along to see if they knew who he was, and of course no one did.  Only one girl claimed to be a Smiths fan, but did not recognize him.  Questionable.  So how incredibly strange that such a decoration would be in this club, or in Miami at all.  Were it in a San Francisco club, I imagine it would be famous in our circles.  It’s the face in the image below.  I suspect it’s exploited for its aesthetic appeal rather than the fact it’s Morrissey.  Though apparently, there is a monthly Smiths night there, and if we’d get along with anyone in Miami, it’d be whoever showed up there.  But the dates didn’t align, and it was not to be.  Later research revealed that there is a local Smiths tribute band called Ordinary Boys, which was due to play there the night we flew home.  Had we coordinated, who knows what might have been?  And not that you asked, but catching a cab home was terrifying.  We had to stand close to the bouncer to help ward off the street tweakers that descend on anyone who steps outside the club.

Day 3 - After brunch at the hotel, we headed to the mall so Shel could find a new suitcase.  I saw signs for something called Churromania.  I got on the horn with Sus to coordinate tickets for SF Sketchfest (thanks Sus!), and then returned to the hotel to lay out by the pool and watch the planes fly overhead.  We grabbed dinner across the street at the Cane Fire Grille, splitting several dishes.  At our own hotel, we met in a conference room for our Cuba trip orientation.  The group in total was 24 people, I believe.  We did basic introductions, made initial assessments of who would be friend or foe, got our questions and paperwork sorted out, and called it a night.

Day 4 - Finally, it was time to leave for Cuba!  There are a lot of rules and paperwork, but it all went pretty smoothly.  Out chartered flight was actually an American Airlines plane operated by an American Airlines crew.  The flight from Miami to Havana was only about 40 minutes.  After making it through passport control, we exited the terminal to a huge crowd.  In addition to having a welcoming party for arriving family members, there is something else going on too… since nothing can be bought directly from the U.S. (or even afforded in most cases), American relatives bring things like flat-screen T.V.s when they visit Cuba.  They bring whole palettes of stuff since it can’t be shipped.  Anyway, so we exit the terminal and enter the parking lot and get shock #1.  You’ve heard there are lots of old cars in Cuba, but you are not prepared.  There are something like 65,000 operational American cars on the roads of Cuba from before the embargo started in 1962 (not long after the revolution).  The parking lot was packed, and there were more classic cars from the 40’s and 50’s than not.

A Word About… Cars
Most of the classic cars or “Yank tanks” you see are taxis.  You constantly see them on the side of the road, hood up, and someone working on them.  It is said that everybody in Cuba is a mechanic (you have to be), and that Cubans are some of the most creative engineers around.  Parts are essentially impossible to come by, so the guts of these cars may be jury-rigged Toyota stuff or even diesel engines to make for cheaper fuel costs.  But the outsides are immaculate.  At any given intersection, you’ll see three or four of them, and that’s throughout the whole city of Havana.  We got to ride in a few of them.  All part of the charm.  We also learned that the ability to buy cars (since the State owns most of them) is restricted to people with special accomplishments, such as doctors who’ve worked overseas.  And even then, the cost can be astronomical.  We heard a used Hyundai minivan can fetch $80,000+!

The next thing you notice are the buildings.  It really is just like the pictures you’ve seen.  Beautiful pre-revolution decay.  Brightly painted in pastels, but fallen into disrepair and neglected for decades.  Salty sea air is harsh, and while the people take care of the insides of their homes, the outside is owned by the State and is generally left to crumble.  Dilapidated buildings are all there is there.  It’s everywhere.  We saw only a handful of buildings and parks in Havana that had been built since the revolution.  That’s the constant backdrop for our entire time in the city.  Another thing you can’t ignore: propaganda.  Images of Castro and Che, along with inspirational quotes… you see them as murals and bus stop benches everywhere the way you’d see McDonald’s ads around here.

After the bus trip to the center of town, we started off with a walking tour of some of the important buildings.  I’ll have to rely on Shel’s fancy pictures to capture the sights here.  The best I could do was camera phone.  We stopped for lunch, where I had the first of many so-so meals.  The consensus on the trip was that cuisine is not Cuba’s strong suit, and Shel confirmed that this is the case for other Central and South American places she’s visited.  My vegetarian needs probably didn’t help matters in that department, but I survived.  I got the usual yokel earful from the carnivores in the group, and Shel kept me from engaging in a debate and making some enemies early on.  Afterwards, we had a peek at one of the very few shopping opportunities of the trip: a used book market made up of vendors in a town square (Plaza de Armas).  We didn’t have any local currency yet, but we made plans to return on another day.  It was time to check in at the historic Hotel Nacional.  This place has been visited by celebrities of all kinds, both revered and reviled, from Winston Churchill to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hollywood royalty of the 30’s and beyond, and not a few pre-embargo mobsters (Meyer Lansky’s name comes up a lot).  We received our first “welcome drink” of the trip — in this case, a Cuba Libre (rum & Coke) using Cuba’s national Coke substitute “tuKola.”  (I say our first because apparently this is a thing in Cuba.  Each time we arrived at a hotel and many times when we arrived at restaurants, we were automatically issued a “welcome drink.”  With cocktails being free in some cases and only $3 or $4 in most others, I was unintentionally averaging about five a day.)  After a delayed check-in process and a quick dinner at the hotel buffet, we met up with some of our travel groupmates and made for El Polinesio, the ill-fated former Trader Vic’s tiki bar that was opened just months before the revolution.  Legend has it the original (American) manager was shot while running to catch one of the last flights out of Cuba!  The décor seemed mostly intact, but it was dead there and felt a bit rundown.  The drinks were tasty enough, and we spent some time getting to know each other.  From there, we visited a sports bar of sorts called El Conejito.  After a few more drinks, Shel and I turned in while the party animals continued on to yet more bars.

Day 5 - I awoke and washed my hair with communist shampoo.  We first toured one of Havana’s most famous cigar factories, watching and learning as workers expertly rolled three different kinds of tobacco leaves (based on shade) into the various sizes, shapes, and blends that make up their major brands like Cohiba and Monte Cristo.  We were not allowed to take pictures in there, but their quality control process was extensive.  Clearly they are deserving of their reputation as the world’s most expert cigar rollers.  There was a factory store built in where you could buy their official straight-from-the-factory products, but officially we were not to buy any, and certainly not allowed to bring them into the U.S.  So that’s all I’ll say about that.  The busy day continued as we toured an old folks home (where the elderly make crafts, socialize, and dance) as well as an elementary school where we were allowed to give the donations (officially “gifts”) that we’d brought them.  We learned about Havana’s city dogs, which are essentially State-owned dogs that roam the streets and are taken care of and fed, etc.  Like an institutionalize stray program.  These dogs are all over the city, usually sleeping in the middle of the street and accepting pettings from passersby.  We stopped for lunch at an Italian place (I had a pretty passable pizza), and then moved on to Callejón de Hamel, which is a colorful Afro-Cuban/Santeria art project consisting of an alley and the buildings around it, covered and filled with murals and sculptures.  We continued to Revolution Square (site of a tower dedicated to José Martí and government buildings bearing huge portraits of Che and Castro), and eventually to the vast and magnificent Colon Cemetery — one of the unexpected highlights of the trip.

A Word About… Water
In short, don’t drink the water.  Not from the tap, anyway.  You have to drink bottled water.  You have to brush your teeth with bottled water.  You have to make sure the ice in your cocktail was made with bottled/filtered water.  I mentioned communist shampoo, but the shower is no joke.  Don’t get the water in your mouth or you will die!  OK, not really.  But apparently, your “number 2’s” will turn into “number 3’s.”  Did I mention all the bottled water you get in Cuba was bottled in Cuba?  Hmmm…

We returned to the hotel for dinner and then attended a stellar lecture on the history of U.S.-Cuban relations.  There was too much to recount, but I feel like I walked away with a much better sense of the problem(s) and complexity therein.  For instance, Havana is old.  You walk on the same stones pirates and slave-traders and Russians and mobsters did.  Where else can you find a city that’s essentially been cut off and frozen for 50 years?  It’s crumbling all around them, and there isn’t money to fix any of it.  Now they could get money to fix it by further opening up tourism, but how long before there’s a Starbucks on every corner and Havana becomes another Cancun?  Another mini-U.S. like every other place on the planet?  It would absolutely ruin everything that makes Havana the gem that it is.  This is just one of the many problems Cuba faces, and it was explained well to us.  I feel so fortunate to have had a chance to see it before it all changes… because it will change.  It has to.

On a lighter note, after the lecture, it was a mad dash to get out to the local baseball stadium to see hometown heroes the Industriales play (for the towering cost of $3, which also got us into the only section tourists were allowed: the netted-in space behind home plate)!  I didn’t get to yell “¡jonrón!” as I’d desperately hoped to, but I must admit it was one of the most exciting sports events I’ve ever watched.  A real bottom-of-the-ninth nail-biter with a comedy of defensive errors.  Another comedy of errors took place outside the stadium after the game when — against my better judgment — we let one of the others in our group handle the taxi situation, leading us to stumble through the poorly-lit streets of Havana alone until we finally happened upon a cab about a mile out.  Still, Cuba is safe, and it seemed we were in no real danger.  For $1 a person, we were back at the hotel.

Day 6 - On our way to the first stop of the day, we passed Coppelia, described as “you’ve heard of an ice cream parlor… this is an ice cream cathedral!”  Our tour guide explained the concept of a “dollar date.”  It turns out that for about one dollar, you can have ice cream at Coppelia and see a movie nearby, so when you say you went on a “dollar date,” any young local will know what you did.  Incidentally, one dollar buys something like 20 scoops of ice cream or so we were told.

A Word About… Currency
Cuba uses two currencies.  There is the CUC, which is meant for tourists and visitors and roughly equates to a dollar.  Then there is the CUP, which is the currency of locals, and is worth about 1/20th or a dollar or five cents.  Locals are paid in CUP and can spend it in places visitors aren’t supposed to shop (such as subsidized stores for citizens only).  But CUCs are still highly valued considering many Cubans live on the equivalent of 20-30 CUCs a month.  This came up in unexpected ways during the trip, e.g. tour guides and taxi drivers making more than doctors simply because they have jobs that interface with tourists, giving them access to tips in CUC.  And you don’t have to worry about a maid going through your stuff, because none of them would risk their job which gives them similar access to CUCs.  Also worth noting is that American ATM cards and credit cards issued by U.S. banks don’t work in Cuba.  So you have to plan ahead and bring lots of cash.  For that matter, internet is slow and scarce, and U.S. phone providers are prohibited by law from operating in Cuba.  So no cell phone, no way, no how.

The tour continued through a neighborhood where aristocrats lived before the revolution, where the massive homes are now inhabited by embassy personnel, and where paradoxically simple Toyota sedans are parked in the driveways.  From there, it was off to our main destination: Las Terrazas national park.  We doused ourselves with bug spray, enjoyed a welcome drink, and ventured onto the trail.  We came across whole chicken families, visited the artist Lester Campa, and learned about the food rationing system and the rural medical clinic.  There was the park’s famous Café Maria, where we had the specialty: “Las Terrazas Coffee,” which tasted exactly like melted coffee ice cream.  We had a country-style lunch at a local farmhouse, chickens running around, and finished up touring the ruins of one of the many coffee plantations/haciendas.  It was interesting to see the layout of where they grew, dried, and milled the beans.  Also sobering to see the slave quarters.  Cuba’s main export was sugar, but its main import was slaves — outnumbering the U.S.

On the way back to the hotel, our final official stop was Fusterlandia, workshop of artist José Fuster, whose style falls somewhere between Gaudi and Picasso.  It was reminiscent of a McDonald’s playland made of trippy rounded architecture with every surface covered in colorful mosaic.

We hit the used book once more now that we had some money, and then returned to Hotel Nacional.  This was to be our big night out in Havana, including Shel’s long-overdue birthday dinner.  She and I dressed up and walked over to Café Laurent, a paladar in a 1950’s apartment building, with dining on the penthouse terrace.  It was the first broad selection of vegetarian food I’d found, so I pigged out.  Most of it was very good!  We caught a taxi over to Floridita for a daiquiri.  It was on our list as I’d read it was one of the top bars (worldwide) to visit before you die.  I guess it was a favorite hangout of Hemmingway, as images and sculptures of him abounded.  As luck would have it, two separate pairs of friends from our travel group walked in a while later.  Seems one of them had made friends with a local while playing chess earlier in the evening, and this local gentleman invited us all to a local spot.  We followed him for several dimly-lit blocks until we came to a building that looked dark and closed.  He knocked on the door, exchanged words with the doorman, and said he had to go talk to the boss.  He came back out a few minutes later and beckoned us in.  Turns out it was a locals-only hotel… a nice one at that!  And inside was a bar that was the most hoppin’ of any we saw in Havana.  Packed with young Cuban men and young and middle-aged Caucasian women tourists loving the attention.  All salsa dancing.  Exactly what you’d imagine when you think crazy Cuban salsa club.  Some of us danced with strangers, while others guarded purses.  Some of us were propositioned by working girls and/or their handlers.  Some of us danced with said working girls.  We gave our local connection five CUC for a round of drinks, and he kept the change — more of the CUC/CUP insanity.  We get a round of drinks for five bucks, and he makes money on the deal.  Anyway, when it came time to negotiate with the working girls, that’s when we decided to head back — much to the chagrin of one of our younger travelmates who was obliterated and miffed his dad blocked him.  We had a round a very late drinks on the back patio of Hotel Nacional and retired for the evening.

Day 7 - This was our day to leave Havana and head to Varadero.  We started out visiting the Morro Castle fort across the water from Havana.  We continued to the fishing village of Cojimar, inspiration for Hemmingway’s The Old Man And The Sea.  Then it was on to Hemmingway’s own estate: Finca Vigía.  It means “Lookout Farm,” and among other things (such as a pool and his boat) it includes a tower that looks out over the hillside.  It’s easy to imagine him being inspired to write with a view like that.  The drink offered here was a delicious daiquiri of pineapple and the juice from freshly-pressed sugar cane… which they do right in front of you with large cane stalks.   We stopped by Organoponicos, a large organic garden where residents grow their own food.  We got to wear stylish plastic bags on our shoes to protect them from mud.  In addition to puppies running wild, we got to see and try the “miracle crop” moringa and the noni fruit (which looks, smells, and allegedly tastes like blue cheese — I didn’t try that one).  We returned to Cojimar for lunch (and a honey-based daiquiri) and then hit the road towards Varadero.

On the way, we stopped at Cuba’s tallest bridge for some sightseeing and what is reported to be the best piña colada in the nation.  (Here, they pour the colada and leave the bottle of rum on the bar for you to complete it yourself, though I’m not sure if that’s what makes it the best.)  It’s a long drive to Varadero.  I napped on the bus some.  I think we all did.  One final stop before reaching our hotel was at a puppet museum in Matanzas.  Not really a museum I guess, as they still actively have performances.  I don’t know, but there were a lot of puppets.  Even “adult” puppets that flashed us.  Anway, on to the Meliá Varadero resort, where we were to spend our last two nights.  This is a big hotel for tourists, in an area for tourists, and it didn’t feel particularly “Cuban” to me.  It was very nice, but we could have been anywhere.  Our stay was all inclusive, meaning the entertainment, the restaurants, and the booze were all a mere show-of-the-wristband away.  We were given a welcome drink of course, but by this point in the trip, it was all a blur of sugary daiquiris, cuba libres, mojitos, and piña coladas.  Between having 5+ drinks a day and little in the way of protein, I was over it.  It was more buffet dinners, better than the Hotel Nacional’s but not much.  Afterwards, we met up with some travelmates, had some drinks, and explored the grounds.  There’s lots to do there… pool, activities, beaches, and romantic hideaways.  The “shows” ended up being strange dancing events, and after watching only a few minutes, we left.  We tried to get the giant game of Connect Four to work, but it was broken.  Instead, we played a game of giant chess, where some of us jumped on the board to replace and act as the pieces.  The outcome was an upset of our resident chess master.

Day 8 - This was our last day of real touring.  We drove by Elián González‘s house.  We visited an artist who makes award-winning tie-dyed textiles and is known for an incredible dress she put together with bicycle parts, including a parasol made of spokes.  She works using the sun on the roof while her husband crafts wooden humidors in the garage.  We visited another artist’s estate (Héctor Correa’s Coincidencia Farm) who also grows delicious fruit (like “apple bananas”).  We got a tour, but my favorite part was a small bamboo grove he had near a stream.  There were wild rabbits all around, and I thoroughly enjoyed a woman feeding their pet rabbit an apple banana.  I am easily entertained.  The final stop was a children’s community project where at-risk youth performed The Wizard Of Oz.  The wizard himself was an adult on stilts.  Each of the many children really had personality that came through in each role.  It was pretty adorable.

The rest of the day was open to us, and we chose to spend it enjoying the resort’s beach.  The conditions were just like Miami’s… hot enough to sunbathe and swim in the ocean.  Past the rocky part of the beach carved out of the cliff was smooth sand.  A hundred feet or so into the water was a sandbar which allowed you to stand and be only about knee deep.  Got some body surfing in.  As close as I live to the water in San Francisco, it’s so cold and murky that I never really get to take advantage of it.  So between Miami and Varadero, I wanted to milk it as long as I could.  As we drank our coladas in the sand, we noticed storm clouds in the distance.  Soon, we got a short and gentle sprinkle of rain, just long enough to give us the full (and nearly double) rainbow you see below (not Photoshopped… that’s a real picture).  When it cleared up, we walked to the next hotel over and watched an incredible sunset — our last in Cuba.  Back at our own hotel,  we planned to take a final dip in the hot tub, where we found a young Peruvian woman posing for bikini photos being taken by what appeared to be a security guard.  He walked away, and our group got in, one by one.  It was a small tub, and when the six(!) of us got in, it was ridiculous.  The water level reached the top when only four of us joined, so the last two pushed a ton of water overflowing all over the deck.  We were way up close and personal, legs all tangled.  If the Peruvian was freaked out (I would have been), she didn’t show it.  When the water started to cool, we exited, eventually leaving one of our guys behind to hit on the Peruvian.  Never mind the fact that when the rest of us exited, we left them in only about knee-deep water, jets sucking air.

After showering and dressing for the evening, it was another buffet dinner and drinks with travelmates.  By this last night, there was a clear divide in the group.  Factions, as it were.  There were some younger folks, but mostly older, and we had all had time to have run-ins with each other, good and bad.  We heard about how this couple was outraged at the rudeness of that couple, or about how that one lady had said something really offensive to so-and-so.  We’d all pretty much picked our sides, and so this last night, there were two separate tables.  Ours was the cool kids table.  The cocktail-drinkin’ and cigar-smokin’ one.  Your intuition might tell you differently, but if you know me then you can trust that ours were the easy-going folks who were not rude to the locals or each other.  We’d had enough of the wet blankets and the folks barking orders and taking pictures of locals like they were a zoo exhibit.  I will not miss them.  The tour guide did his best to spend time with both tables, and I did my best to drink and watch the lingerie fashion show taking place in the bar.  Eventually, Shel and I conked out, but I’m told the party animals stayed up quite a bit later.  There was karaoke and breakdancing, allegedly.

Day 9 - It was time to go home.  We got on the bus for the 2.5 hour drive back to the Havana airport.  Aside from the short pit stop at a roadside bar (where the picture below was snapped), it was a straight shot.  We went through the extensive process to get on the plane, including passport control, paying of exit fees, return of visa, etc.  While waiting to board, I got a real treat… I heard my name over the loud speaker in the crowded terminal.  It was hard to make out, but I distinctly heard my name and the word “customs.”  Naturally, I shit a gold brick, hastily explaining to Shel and others that I had to go, presumably to my death.  They took me into a small empty room, where my checked bag stood in the corner.  There were two uniformed officers who spoke no English.  I communicated as well as I could, and they motioned for me to put my bag on the table and open it.  I won’t tell you all the things that raced through my mind, but I was relieved(?) that they stopped at the first item they found: a bronze plaque I bought at the used book market.  They looked it over, then called in a third woman.  She was not uniformed, but had an air of authority and began examining the plaque closely with a jeweler’s loupe.  They exchanged Spanish a bit, and I only picked up “antiguo,” which I assumed was “antique.”  Turns out there are laws against exporting art or anything that looks old enough to be an antique without a special license, which of course I did not have.  They asked me where I got it and if I had a receipt.  I explained I had no receipt and that I bought it at the used libro market.  After some discussion, the woman waved me on, and I was allowed to repack my bag and keep the plaque.  Thankfully, they searched no further.

So after a short flight, we land in Miami.  All my travelmates sail right through customs and onto baggage claim… except me.  My printout has a big black “X” through it, and I have to stand in a slow-moving line where I am eventually interrogated by customs and asked face-to-face all the same questions on the customs form.  Though the agent was gruff, I was let through and finally out of the airport and free, back on U.S. soil.  The delay robbed me of the chance to say goodbye to the new friends I’d made travelling, but Shel didn’t, and I have contact info for them.  So after a long day of travel, and being detained by customs in both countries, I was ready to eat and then sleep forever in the Miami hotel.  We returned to the Cane Fire Grille, this time ordering all of the same food, but not splitting it… ordering all those same dishes each.  Uncomfortably full, but satisfied and relaxed, we hit the hay.

Day 10 - We had a late flight out of Miami, so we had time to kill.  We started off sunbathing by the pool, where — after getting no color the whole trip — I managed to get slightly burned in a very short time.  We walked down the street to see the new Hobbit movie.  Then we headed to the airport, got on a slightly-delayed flight, and landed in San Francisco after midnight.  And I was thrilled to be home.

What did I learn?  In addition to everything above, what miscellaneous findings did I take away from the whole experience?

  1. Cuba is safe and friendly.  Every time the bus rolled by a farmer on a tractor, or a child on the street, they’d wave at us and smile.  Shel noted that of all the Central and South American destinations she’s visited, Cuba felt like the safest by far.  And it’s not terribly expensive.  And Friendly Planet, based on this experience, is solid.  I’d highly recommend the trip if you can make it happen.  And do it soon before Cuba changes!
  2. Napkins and toilet paper are like gold in Cuba.  I don’t know why that is, but in some places they’re nigh impossible to come by.  And most public bathrooms have attendants that dole them out to you… for a price.  For as strong as the dollar is, I would have loved to just pay an up-front “unlimited toilet paper fee” so that I wouldn’t have to constantly worry about where I might get stuck with nothing to wipe with.
  3. My Spanish is better than I thought.  I pulled out some random vocab words and was able to understand most conversations.  I even had some rudimentary exchanges with out bus driver about his kids, and he spoke zero English.  Guess some of that stuff sticks with you after all!
  4. A lot of the weird regulations you’ve heard about, those ones that make you scratch your head on why our relationship with Cuba is so unnecessarily bizarre… well, they’re mostly true.  For instance, if someone tries to enter Cuba illegally by water… if they are caught in the water, the Coast Guard sends them back, but if they make land, they can stay permanently seeking political asylum.  Imagine now a Cuban who tries to visit the U.S. legally with a visa.  They apply and are often turned down by the U.S. as a flight risk.  That same Cuban can then make the easy trip to Mexico, walk right up to U.S. Border Patrol and say “I’m Cuban, and I want political asylum.”  Then we have to let them stay.  They have the option to become citizens.  They can still return to Cuba any time they want, and the Cuban government doesn’t care.  What sense does that make?  Just one example of many strange and contradictory policies we have.  After all these years, even the Russians and the Chinese are our allies now, and yet we hold this grudge against Cuba.  Unless I’m missing something, it sure seems pointless.  At least it’s purely between the governments.  The Cuban people seemed to love us, and they gave us no reason not to love them.
  5. Some places just have a charm all their own.  I will forever remember the feeling of cabbing through the late-night streets of Havana, crumbling but clean, and empty as a movie lot but for a few classic cars idling in this or that alleyway.  It was unreal.
  6. Cuba is not immune to the phenomenon I’ve noticed in other countries where English is not the native language.  People have shirts with English phrases on them that make no sense out of context.  Things like “Right on, brother!” and “Knock it off!”  I guess though maybe that’s the equivalent of when Americans get tattoos of Chinese and Japanese characters?

This was such an amazing and memorable trip.  I lost two combs, but I didn’t get Dengue Fever or the shits.  Big thanks to my favorite travelmates: Handcuffs, Jersey, Bobby Fischer, Mom, Indiandy, Andy’s Dad, the Chicago Two, and the Denver couple whom we did not nickname.  (My nickname was “Franklin.”)  And of course, Shel!  The trip would not have been the same without you!  Your friendship and tremendous help in planning were incredible from start to finish.  We travel great together!  Love ya!

(P.S.  I will not miss the Downer-Bickersons.)

The soundtrack of the trip:

  • Theme from “Miami Vice” – Jan Hammer
  • “Ice Ice Baby” – Vanilla Ice
  • “Santeria” – Sublime
  • “My Way” – Frank Sinatra
  • “Havana Moon” – Chuck Berry
  • “Guantanamera” – The Sandpipers
  • “Here I Go Again” – Whitesnake
  • “The Lazy Sunbathers” – Morrissey
  • “Badfish” – Sublime
  • “Come Monday” – Jimmy Buffett
  • “Smuggler’s Blues” – Glenn Frey

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2 Comments to “¡Cuba Libre!”

  1. “Napkins and toilet paper are like gold in Cuba. I don’t know why that is, but in some places they’re nigh impossible to come by. And most public bathrooms have attendants that dole them out to you… for a price. For as strong as the dollar is, I would have loved to just pay an up-front “unlimited toilet paper fee” so that I wouldn’t have to constantly worry about where I might get stuck with nothing to wipe with…”
    It’s official. I’m NEVER going to Cuba.

    • Ha ha! It actually wasn’t that bad, but I was able to hold it and only go in the hotels. Just in case, we got in the habit of bringing TP and handiwipes with us at all times.

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