Thursday, January 12, 2012

Americans in Cuba, A Time Travelers Guide

Classic image set up in Havana, yes Che is everywhere.
Authors Note: Cuba today is a country of deep social, economic, and political contrasts. Trying to get a handle on Cuba in ten short days of travel is akin to trying to explain the Superbowl to others while viewing it live through a sheet of paper with a single pin hole in it. I am sure we missed much in Cuba on this first trip, but what we did see made us curious for more.

Part One, Random Travel

When you travel like we do you never pass up the opportunity to change plans in midstream. Once I was misdirected in Australia by huge and unyielding saltwater croc who had taken up residence in the middle of the only road leading to a local airport.

That little adventure lead to the missing of a flight and my subsequent discovery and wonders of diving on the great barrier reef, a life changing side trip.

So it was on Christmas day 2011 while the rest of the planet were opening gifts brought to them by a mythological Norseman my wife Jeanne and I were being entertained by the rich travel stories of Cuba our Panamanian hosts told over a lavish breakfast.

It didn't take long for us to decide to change flight plans opting out of our previously arranged adventures in Costa Rica, apologies Lonely Planet Travel Guide, for a visit to Castro's Cuba before this mysterious country opens, as it will inevitably, to an embargo lifting USA. After all how angry can 80,000 expat Cubans in Miami be almost 60 years later?

For those of you wishing to see Cuba before the onslaught of mega corporations, big billboards, golden arches, and star-lattes I documented our travels in a series of blog posts to help guide you along the way.

I see today's Cuba through the lens of East Germany when the wall came down in the late 1980's. If you were within 100 miles of that historic event and did not make the effort to go see it and mingle with the people, shame on you. There's ordinary vacation travel and then there's brief moments in time where extraordinary events change the course of history, Cuba is on the threshold of those changes now.

Getting There and "The Man"

Outside the old Romeo y Julieta cigar factory in Havana
Getting to Cuba is as easy as booking a flight, as long as it does not originate from the USA and while we're on that subject lets talk embargo. For folks like me in my early 40's the USA embargo on Cuba seems almost quaint when you measure it against other world actors like Iran, North Korea, and al-Qaeda.

Seriously, Cuba is still a threat?

None the less the State Department guided no doubt by a few dusty sitting Senators who have been in politics far too long have denied Americans direct access for the past 53 years. Seems the American government knows better then the citizenry when it comes to travel choices. Yeah, right.

Fortunately this will not stop you from traveling by third country to Cuba, the minor detail is a missive from the Department of State and the "Trading With The Enemy Act" which categorically forbids ordinary Americans without special permission from the US to be in Cuba and spend money there. For example you can travel and spend money in Cuba if you happen to be part of a major US telecommunications business:

"Employees of a U.S. telecommunications services provider or an entity duly appointed to represent such a provider traveling incident to: 1) the commercial marketing, sales negotiation, accompanied delivery, or servicing of authorized telecommunications-related items; or 2) participation in telecommunications-related professional meetings for the commercial marketing of, sales negotiation for, or performance under contracts for the provision of telecommunications services, or the establishment of facilities to provide telecommunications services".

If you're like us though and anyone asks, you didn't spend a dime, we didn't.

Our flight originated out of Panama on COPA Airlines, but you can get them out of Cancun, or even Nassau Bahamas with a number of travel companies.

We flew over a cloudless Caribbean sea and arrived at the outskirts of Habana as the locals call it about two hours later. The local airport is fairly modern with just a whiff of soviet style architecture. There looks to be new construction in the works with several plastic wrapped arrival gates ready for new terminals to be built. For now we were treated to an old fashioned tarmac deplaning. I was surprised to see made in the USA Dell computers being used at passport control complete with mini cams for taking pictures and a sophisticated Microsoft empowered program for tracking visitors. Our entrance into Cuba was a breeze and after a quick paperwork inspection the smiling passport control gal waved us through to baggage and on to the main terminal.

It seemed like she was happy to see two War Mongering American Imperialists which was not necessarily the response I had imagined.If she wasn't we were going to be the last to know about it. She also didn't stamp our passports which as I understand is a wink and nod for Americans who travel to Cuba.

Locals interested in iPhones
Let me first say I was half expecting to see ragged clothed locals suffering under 53 years of a failed Communist revolution, instead I was greeted by a Miami South Beach looking crowd of healthful looking Cubanos. In fact everywhere we went well dressed Cubans greeted us, this is a country that may not have water you can drink without boiling it first, but the locals keep up appearances as a point of pride and have very clean streets.

We got a transfer to the Melia Havana Hotel on the main tourist drag and discovered one of Cubas monuments to tourism. The Melia is the Great Pyramid of Giza of hotels, it's well appointed rooms and Stalinist block architecture was something to behold.

Frankly I  was not expecting this place. I was however fully prepared for the congestion at the front desk, confusion with the rooms, and the 100 or so Europeans flanked by the two or three Armani coutured flight crews from Italy who were in the middle of creating a mini United Nations crises of voices, accents, and tired pouting that only comes from 17 hours in the air.

Our room (when we got it) was huge and faced the ocean so every night we were serenaded to bed by the waves crashing on the rocky beach outside. Excitement and anticipation ruled the day so we wasted no time at the hotel and quickly raced to a local cab and off into the night to go and try some local Cuban cuisine.

Hooters Cuban Style

Dinner is served at the "Zona Oficial"
To get around the US embargo after the sudden vaporization of soviet aid Cuba has fallen into tourism, by all accounts it's a work in progress, at least in Havana. There are a few state run restaurants where tourists are taken en mass located in special zones but we were looking for something more authentic. Sadly our cab driver misinterpreted our desires and drove us through the dark night in Havana to an out of the way place he said had "better food" . What he took us to was Cubas first Hooters.

Yes Hooters, there I said it.

Inside what was once a massive warehouse for storing tobacco back in the 1800's was a cross between an Argentinian Steak House complete with flamenco dancers and long hair guitar playing boleros mixed in with dozens of Cuban Hooters girls wearing white see through miniskirts, push up bras and, wait for it, santa hats.

To make the scene even weirder in the background between sets American music blared down on the tourism mass, mostly from Europe, with songs like "Jagged Little Pill" and "Gangsters Paradise". Meanwhile a very buxom waitress asked us/told us what we'll be eating tonight and we settled in with two watery Sangrias seated next to a table of jacked up Australians recounting tales of drunken adventures all over Cuba with their tired looking tour guide.

The santa hats really threw me off and I wondered in the middle is this bizarre scene what Castro thought of this new, hybrid Cuba. This was a man who once railed against the big American Casinos of the late 1950s calling them bourgeois. While I  am not a bourgeois aficionado by any stretch this looked and smelled pretty decadent to me and I wondered if Castro for all his revolutionary zeal saw this new Cuba in the same light as the past, present, or future.

That's the funny thing about a political construct like communism or even capitalism.

You can get folks to go along for just so long before their very human nature starts to break apart the mold you set the human spirit into. At least for this small piece of Cuba hoovering up tourist dollars with watery Sangrias, mediocre food, and santa hats perched on top on young waitresses dripping sexual innuendo tonight "viva la revolution" seems a long time ago.

Dear Shark Conservationists, Lay Off Rosie O'Donnell

After 25 days being offline enjoying the joys of random travel from Panama to Cuba I finally powered up my iPhone at the San Francisco airport to get caught up on some shark news.

2012 will be a pivotal year for new initiatives and I was keen to see how many of the groundbreaking efforts of 2011 were shaping up for the new year.

What I soon discovered was a group of rabid and misguided shark conservation loons going after talk show host and comedian Rosie O'Donnell over pictures of her taken three years ago with a dead shark.

Three years ago, really? And you call this conservation? So much for 2012.

Rosie caught the sharks under the tutelage of Mark the Shark a well known Florida based shark fisherman who likes to goad the shark conservation world, and a few special individuals in particular, into foaming at the mouth indignation over dead sharks on docks.

The mainstream media is having a field day with this non story and Facebook, sadly, is in its usual righteous fury over images that have nothing to do with the Rosie O'Donnell of today, or even the news that as of 2012 Tiger sharks and Great Hammerheads are now protected in Florida waters.

Lead by You Tube video sensation, "Mr. How To Speak Australian" Erik Brush, an overly passionate under-informed shark gadfly who, when not on You Tube with his starkly creepy basement videos, can be found hawking his second rate book about the end of the planet. The rabid shark conservation community is joyously shooting themselves and the shark community at large in the foot.

It is time to stop.

Like a bad smell emanating from the sewers of a slow news cycle, shark conservationists are latching on to this ridiculous story with the ferocity of a ragged street dog in Latin America who has found something rancid in the gutter to eat.

Images from three years ago do not make for a news story and I am pretty sure that the serious shark conservation world could do without side shows like this one that make Sea Shepherd and Paul Watson's brand of "make it up as we go along" media output look like University of California - Berkeley's School of Journalism.

We can do a lot better in 2012. We have to, because this was a piss poor way to start the year.