the hustle

so, there’s one thing that really sucks about Cuba. no, it’s not the heat, or the food, or the funky money. all of those things really don’t bother me. the worst thing about Cuba are all of the Jinteros here. Jintero is the local term for “hustler”. these are people who spend their time just chilling on the streets and waiting for tourists to come by. then they run up to you and try to act all charming and friendly as if they just want to make conversation and chat. but after about 5 minutes of this, they inevitably hit you up for money. or, they try to sell you something, or the other trick is they take you to a restaurant/hotel/whatever where they get a fat commission and your rates are jacked up.

these people are totally driving me nuts. it’s not just that it’s a waste of time to interact w/ them… it’s more that they are playing you for a fool. and each time I talk to someone on the street, I kind of hope in the back of my mind that maybe just this once… just ONE time, this person will be talking because they really just want to talk ant not because they want something. I mean, one of the reasons to travel is so that you can meet the people of the country and get to know about them and have some interactions. And yeah, it’s not like I’m expecting to make some lifelong friends or anything like that, but it’s nice to be able to just chat etc without it turning out that the whole conversation was just to warm you up for this person’s salespitch.

And it’s always the same script:

“hi, where you from?”
“I’m from san Francisco”
“SAN FRANCISCO!!!!!!” the say as their eyes light up as if this was the best place ever… “I LOVE san Francisco! I have a uncle/cousin/friend who lives in New York/Boston/Miami!!!”
“um, that’s nice”
“how you like Cuba?”
“I like it a lot, it’s an amazing country.”
“Ah!! Very good!! How long you here for?”
“2 weeks”
“ah. Good… so…” and then the salespitch “can you buy a cervesa for your new amigo?”/”you want cheap price for good cigar?”/”you looking for chica?”

ugh. I go through this little charade like 10 times a day. And the thing is… I just cant tell them to fuck off. If someone directly just asked me for money or to buy shit, I would. But, when someone comes up to me and asks me where I’m from.. I cant just wave them off. What if this is the one time someone is just curious, and I’m totally rude to them? So, I listen to their shtick. And I respond to all the questions for the millionth time, and then I get pissed off again when they try to sell me something.

Then, there’s also a female version of this. The females aren’t really selling anything except for themselves. Of course, they too often try not to just come out and say it, and instead just “hang out” until the right time. My first day in Cuba, I was having trouble finding a bank to change money. This random woman helped me find one, and then just stuck around. First she was chatting w/ her friend, then she was talking to other people, but she just wouldn’t leave. I knew that it was only a matter of time till she asked me for something, but there wasn’t a polite way to get rid of her. The bank ended up having issues, so she took me to another one. On the way there, she tells her daughter, whose hand she is holding, to hold my hand too. Great, what am I supposed to do.. I cant diss the little kid. So before I know it, I’m walking through the streets of Cuba with this woman and her kid holding our hands. Sheez, how do I get into these situations? Eventually, when I declined going to a bar for drinks, I was able to finally escape. Another time, when I went to that music thing in someone’s house, after it ended, this girl said she had to show me something. Well, when we get to the next room, it turns out to be her bedroom. Crap! Luckily, she just played me a bunch of her sisters CDs, but then when she invited me to come the next night for dinner, I knew I had to get the hell outta there.

So yeah, all of it is hella frustrating and really difficult to deal with. I think my new policy here will be to talk to nobody at all… which really sucks cause I wasn’t hoping to come to Cuba to *avoid* people. * Sigh*.

on the bus

July 31st

Waking up at 7:30 am to catch the bus after staying up till 3am wasn’t easy. Ugh. I somehow managed to get out of my casa at a reasonable time though. Trying to find a taxi to the bus stop was a confusing experience. Many of the taxis in Cuba are not for tourists and can not take tourist money. So, one after another, taxis would tell me no and just leave. Time was ticking away and I was starting to get pretty nervous, but then I was able to get a ride from an “unofficial taxi” (in other words, just some random guy on the street).

The bus ride was 9 hours which isn’t too bad. They played reggaton videos at about a billion decibels for most of the way. Halfway through the journey, we stopped at a roadside eatery so people could get some food. Unfortunately, this wasn’t really a restaurant, they just sold snacks, but the people on the bus descended on the stalls like they were starving. People were buying food and tons of it. They sold these large bags of saltine-like crackers and people were buying like 6 bags at a time.. it was crazy! People were walking away with armfuls of soda, candy, etc. The only nonpackaged good here were these pathetic looking sandwiches that had a slice of paper thin baloney in them or these buns that had, not a whole hot dog, but two hot dog slivers inside. The other thing that people were going crazy for were these non-alcoholic malt beverages which I decided to try… nasty!

We finally arrived in Camaguay, and I started walking. A couple guys asked if I wanted a taxi ride, but I declines. See, it turns out that I’m pretty strapped for cash. I only brought 75$ per day to spend, but after the rip-off conversion (us dollars get a 10% tax),I ended up with only around 58CUC to spend per day. With hotels costing 25CUC, internet costing a whopping 6CUC per hour, et etc, this doesn’t leave me too much. I started the walk into town. A little way into it, I looked at the map, and it turned out that I really miscalculated how far it was. It turned out that it was almost 2 miles away. Uh-oh. And then… it started raining. No, not raining, but dumping. I’m not talking a light shower, I’m talking Niagara falls. It was seriously an insane amount of rain from out of nowhere, and I had to take cover under the awning of some peoples house. Turned out later, that the ride into town would have only cost me like a buck or 2. Damn.

Eventually the rain lightened up and I walked to town. I walked up to the cheapest hotel from the guidebook and look inside. Hrm.. that’s odd… everyone inside is wearing eyepatches. Umm… ok. So, I go inside and it turns out that it’s not a hotel anymore but is now a hospital for people with eye problems. Next, I go to one of the Casas listed in my book. They’re full. But they say they’ll call around to find me a place. I wait there while the lady calls place after place after place, each time shaking her head as she hangs up the phone. This is not a good sign… especially since it just go dark. Finally though, she says that she found a place. Phew.

While the lady was calling, I talked to her daughter who spoke really good English. I really don’t know why, but I instantly got a strange feeling that this girl was Russian. I don’t know if it was the accent she had in her English, or her mannerisms, or what, but there was definitely something Russian about her. I looked around the house to see if I could see any telltale signs. Hrmmm… blue and white china everywhere. Very Russian. But it might not be too. Finally, when I mentioned that I was having a hard time learning Spanish, she mentioned that she was having a hard time learning Russian. Ah-ha!!! It turns out that her husband and mother-in-law are Russian. I’m still not sure then, how I got this Russian vibe. But, right before I let her know that I was Russian etc, the guy showed up to take me to the casa. Damn.

The inside of the casa that I’m staying at (and the Russian’s casa too) were both pretty fancy. Ok, I don’t mean super posh or anything, but definitely way nicer than the casa in Havana. They had really nice furniture, ornate buildings, and nice TVs. It seems like people in this town are a bit better off maybe? Actually, I’ve really been wondering about the people who own these Casas. So, the average Cuban makes about 13$ per month from the govt. It’s socialism, so everyone gets paid pretty much the same. There are a few private enterprises allowed like these casa and certain privately owned restaurants. So… are these people rich? If they make like 25$ a night from tourists, even if they only get booked like ¼ of the nights per month, these people should be ridiculously wealthy by Cuban standards. Of course, I know that the govt taxes them heavily for being entrepreneurs, but still…I do wonder how the money thing works out.

After unpacking, I went to find food. It looks like Camaguay doesn’t have a raging nightlife like Havana did. In Havana, even at 2am people were everywhere, while here at 10pm,the streets were fairly empty and most places were closed. I got a funny version of spaghetti w/ what looked like chopped baloney in it for dinner, and then since I was beat, went to sleep…

not alone

July 30th

After my usual huge breakfast overlooking the streets of Havana, I set out to do some sightseeing. I checked out the revolutionary museum which was ok, but could have used a bit more English labelling. Afterwards, I decided to go down to Vedado which is a part of town that I haven’t explored yet. Trying to save some money, and hoping for an interesting experience, I decided to take the bus. The bus system is pretty damn confusing here. There are no route maps, the bus stops aren’t really labelled, and basically, unless you already know which bus you need, you are pretty screwed. I went to one of the stops mentioned in the book and asked a policeman for help. As always, the policeman was super nice and incredibly helpful. Not only did he tell me when the bus was coming and how much it cost, but when he found out that I didn’t have the correct coin, he just gave me the money for the bus. Wow.

Cubans have a very interesting way of queuing for things. They don’t really get in line or anything, instead everyone just kind of stands around wherever they please. So, how do you know what order they are in? Well, when you get there you yell out “el ultimo”, which means “last”, and someone there will yell out “yo”, which means “me”. Then you know that you’re after that person, and now you are “el ultimo”.

The bus that I needed to take was a camello (camel) which are these HUGE two humped monstrosities that are so huge that they are pulled by a semi. According to my guidebook, they can fit about 300 people, and from what I’ve seen, they probably try to fit even more than that. When the bus arrived and the huge metal door clanged open, it was pure havoc getting on the bus. Everyone stepping on everyone else, and once inside, everyone is completely crushed together and you barely had room to breathe, much less move. Did I mention that it’s a billion degrees outside? Needless to say, it was an interesting ride. I was a bit nervous, since I was supposed to get off at the last stop, but had no idea what this stop would look like. Luckily, eventually almost everyone got off the bus at one point, and so I staggered off as well.

When the mob cleared, I sat down and tried to figure out where the hell I was. By chance, there were some tourists nearby, so I asked them for help. They turned out to be a couple from Ireland who were even more confused by Cuba than I was. They had pretty much done no travelling outside of Europe, so coming to Cuba was pretty intense for them. The lack of food, the 2 currency systems, etc were really throwing them for a loop. We ended up chatting a bunch and then set off to explore together.

Living in a casa particular with a Cuban family has been really cool, but the big drawback of not staying in a hotel is that you don’t really get to run into other travellers. Plus, from what I’ve gathered, most of the people who travel here are Spanish, Italian, or German… so the chances of me finding anyone to hang out with are slim to none. So basically, after a couple days of being all alone, it was pretty cool to have people to hang out with. We checked out the Plaza de Revolucion, the *huge* Jose Marti monument, and also just spent a bunch of time kicking it.

Later we went out to a restaurant that for once turned out to be mad cheap. During dinner, they got to try their first mojitos ever (I guess they don’t really have them in Ireland). So, I asked them if they drink Irish car bombs over in Ireland or if it’s an America thing. Turns out they’ve never even heard of them. Of course, as soon as I asked, I instantly wondered if they might be offended. I’d never thought of it before, but isn’t it kind of messed up to have a drink make light of a terrible struggle that is in Ireland? Irish car bomb is such a fuct name for a drink, it’s like if someone invented a flaming drink and named it the twin towers or something. Well, they didn’t seem offended, or at least didn’t say so…

After dinner, we swung by the hotel they were staying at. Dayum, this place was like a palace!! The building itself was super fancy with an enormous courtyard outside to hang out in and you could look down on all the people partying on the Malecon from there. It really seemed nice, but honestly, I just cant see someone being able to get the full Cuba experience if you stay at a place like that.

After the hotel, I tried to figure out what to do w/ my last night in Cuba. There was this place called the ¨casa de la musica¨. Which was supposed to be really good, but going to some big club by myself seemed kind of weird, yeah? Well, screw it, I may as well go check it out anyways. Waiting in line for the club, I ended up meeting this dude from Paris who was way psyched on SF. He was a photographer who got to travel all over the world for work and said that SF was the best city he’s ever been to and that he totally wants to move there if he can. Man, I’ve been having some pretty damn good luck running into people today.

So, I ended up kicking it at the Casa Musica with him and these two other French people who he had met on the plane. When ordering drinks, our waiter told us that it´d be cheaper to order a bottle of rum, so we did, and within half an hour we had practically polished it off. Unfortunately, I had to get up at 7:30 the next morning to catch the bus, so at 2am I cut out.

It had been a really good day, and though I’m really enjoying trying to scrape together my Spanish skills, it was nice to be able to just chill and talk in English for a while. It’s interesting to me how few budget travellers there are in Cuba. It seems like most of the tourists here are package tourists who stay at fancy resorts and travel in large groups. Even the people I met today, even though they weren’t in a package tour, the Irish people were staying at one of the nicest hotels in Havana and the French people were staying at some chic all-inclusive resort just outside of town. Am I the only backpacker here?

the capital – part 2

July 28th/29TH PART 2

cigars

Cuba is very well know for its cigars, and though I don’t smoke them at home, nor do I even really know how to smoke them, I still had to give it a shot while I was here. I dodged all the hustlers on the street that kept offering me cheap cigars (which were probably fakes… “hey you! I give you special price!”), and went straight to the factory. Walking inside the climate controlled room was like heaven seeing as outdoors it was about a trillion degrees. Inside I was faced with trying to decide what to buy out of the tons of different brands and sizes that were on sale. I asked the lady behind the counter to show me some stuff, and ended up buying three different kinds (recommended by her and the guidebook). She even gave me a free one!

I walked down to one of the many parks around, sat back, and smoked my first cigar. The first brand that I tried was Cohiba, which is supposed to be the best brand in Cuba. It was actually really nice, and I can see why people enjoy it. The cigars cost around 5$ each which isn’t too bad I think. In the book I read that it’s also possible to buy “bodega cigars” which are the cheaper cigars smoked by most locals (just a few cents each), so I might end up switching to those later.

Money

Money here has been extremely confusing. More confusing than any country I’ve been to actually. Cuba operates on two different currencies, CUC which are Cuban Convertibles (roughly a dollar) and CUP which are Cuban Pesos(roughly 4 cents). Prices on everything are usually marked with the $ symbol which never means dollars, but can be used for either CUC or CUP. To make things even more confusing sometimes both CUC and CUP are called pesos, and sometimes CUC are called dollares. So, whenever you see a price, you don’t know which currency it might be sold in. I’m getting used to it now, but during the first day it confused the hell out of me, and at one point I accidentally bought a pathetic crappy sandwich that even McDonalds would be ashamed to sell for 5 bucks, when it should have cost 20 cents (and the seller tried to rip me off even more by trying to keep an extra 2 bucks of my change).

The other thing about money is that Cuba turned out to be wayyy more expensive than I thought. I brought along 75$ per day to spend and thought that this would be way too much money. Other than Europe, you shouldn’t have to spend that much anywhere, right? Well, here hotels cost 25$ a night. Meals often cost around 10$. A mojito costs 2 or 3$. Before you know it, your money is gone!

mojitos

mojitos have been one of my preferred drinks ever since Natasha whipped up a pitcher of the swampy-looking concoction at my house. I’ve decided to drink at least one mojito per day while I’m here, and so far I’m on track. The mojitos here definitely vary though. Some are excellent, some are just sad and pathetic looking, and some come w/ about three shots or rum in them (ouch!). I went to a bar called la Bodegita del Medio which is famous for being Hemingway´s favourite bar in Havana. They have of Hemingway shaking hands w/ Fidel Castro, and Hemingway´s autograph is on the wall. It’s pretty touristy now w/ large groups of tourists being led up to drink a quick mojito. Made from a virtual assembly line at the bar. Nevertheless, not being one to shirk my duties as a tourist, I got a mojito there and it was definitely one of the better ones I’ve had so far.

food

For some strange reason, I’ve always thought that Cuban food was hella good. I’m really not sure why… maybe I’ve just heard that from other people. Well, I thought wrong. The food is uninspiring at best, greasy at worst, and sometimes almost laughable. The main staple here is pork and chicken, and nine times out of ten it is fried. No sauce. Often the garnish is a sad little pile of green beans that look like they belong wilting in the gutter and not on your plate. The best part of each meal actually is the ubiquitous Cuban rice and beans which has the not so PC name of ¨the Christians and the moors¨. I’ve had it a million times now, and though I’m sure I’ll get sick of it at some point, I still am enjoying it every time.

The other problem is that it’s often hard to find food. Seriously, I’ve wandered around Havana during mid day and not been able to find anything to eat. Restaurants are often randomly closed, or not serving. Places listed in the book end up not existing anymore. Sometimes there’s literally nothing around other than street sandwiches. The guidebook says that you’re likely to go hungry at least once, and I can see why! The one thing that there is a lot of though, is ice cream. Dude, Cubans *love* their ice cream. Everywhere you look people will be walking around with ice cream cones that you can buy for next to nothing. There’s nothing quite like it, especially with the heat!

Also, another interesting things is the rules that they have here for restaurants. If you open your own restaurant, you cant sell beef or shrimp. Also, you aren’t allowed to serve more than 12 people at once. Of course, people often break these rules, but it’s funny that they exist.

tourism

Cuba is refreshingly non-touristy. You don’t see a million back to back hostels/souvenir shops/net cafes/etc. there are no McDonalds or any other large chains that you usually see everywhere. I’m assuming most of this is because of their government. For a long time, all businesses were owned by the state, and even now there is very little private enterprise. Because people can’t make a ton of money off of tourists, they don’t.

communism

Cuba is one of the last remaining communist countries. In the US, the govt makes it seem like Castro is a super evil dictator and that all the people here are totally oppressed and miserable and suffer under the regime. Honestly, I wonder how much of that is really true. People here are super nationalistic, and it seems (at least outwardly) really love Castro, Che, and the revolution. All over Havana I’ve seen graffiti praising the revolution, praising Castro, etc etc. when Castro became ill recently, a man on the street told me that him and his family went to church to pray for Castro. Castro’s photo is up everywhere you look.

Of course, there is definitely the potential that all of this is forced on the people. It is hard to tell. But, the current govt does have a lot going for it. Everyone in the country is guaranteed housing, no matter how poor. Everyone in the country is guaranteed education, and the literacy rate is like 97%. There is a food ration, and everyone will get at least a minimum amt of food each month. There is free healthcare for all citizens. So yeah, all of the basics are covered. Beyond that, people her earn a meagre 13$ per month which really isn’t much, but a lot of basic things that people need are cheap here.

some other stuff

There are no cell phones here. which is shocking because even in tiny little villages in India, cell phones are everywhere.

There are no big flashy new cars here. In fact, instead there are lots of beautiful and well preserved old classic cars that you see everywhere in the streets. It almost feels like you are back in time sometimes when looking at them. No mater how many of these cars I see, I just can´t get enough. Definitely a highlight of cuba.

People here wear *very* little clothes. I guess it’s the heat, but so many guys here wander about with their shirt pulled up to their chest and the women (of all ages) wear outfits that are pretty scandalous.

Every day so far, it has rained like CRAZY in the middle of the day. It’s a million degrees outside and then BOOM, tons of thunder and it dumps buckets.

Apparently I share the same bday as Fidel Castro, and people get really excited about this when they find out.

the capital part 1

July 28th/29TH – Part 1

Havana

I set out to walk around town using this walking tour that was in my guidebook, but after a few minutes I decided to just wing it. I spent my time just randomly walking around Havana and taking it all in. Wow, Havana really is a beautiful city. Lots of really old and cool looking colonial architecture everywhere. You could really tell that so many of these buildings were incredibly fancy in their heyday, yet now so many of them had crumbling walls and chipped paint. But somehow the fact that so many of these buildings were falling apart, just added to their charm and gave them a special feel. There were tons of monuments, statues, etc to look at, but the thing that struck me the most about Havana is just how many plazas and squares it has.

Almost every four or five streets, there is another park of some sort. Even though it was midday on a Friday, there were tons of people out and about hanging out in the parks. Old men sitting on benches while puffing cigars, teenagers hanging out and talking to each other, and other people having animated conversation. Especially since the days here are so hot, it’s super nice to just chill and relax in these plazas. It’s really cool, that unlike many other capital cities, Havana isn’t a concrete jungle filled with office buildings, but instead is a city where it’s pleasant to live and spend time.

When I wasn’t sitting around in parks, I spent time just exploring different neighborhoods around Havana. The Casa that I was staying at had a perfect location, just two blocks from the main promenade in the center of town, and a great place for people watching. From what I can tell the people here are super outgoing and everyone seems really cheerful… this is definitely not a country where the people are somber or serious. Pretty much everyone around is usually laughing and socializing…

Havana at night

The people here stay out till all hours of the night. It’s crazy, even at 2 am in the morning, there are still tons of people hanging out outside, chatting away, or drinking. It really does seem like people never sleep here. There is a 9km long boulevard called the Malecon that runs along the beach and ever night it’s jam packed with people walking around or chilling.

The other thing that I’ve noticed is that Havana is remarkably safe. The neighborhood that I’m staying in looks pretty sketchy. The buildings are all worn down, it’s super dark, and there are small groups of people hanging out on their porches and not wearing shirts. If I was back home and saw a neighborhood like that, I’d be totally sketched out, but here this is the norm. All of Havana is dark, and all of Havana is crumbling (the guide book says 300 buildings per year collapse in this town)… neither of these things indicate a sketchy neighborhood. Actually, from what I’ve read, Cuba is one of the safest countries in Latin America. There’s cops *everywhere* around here, and from what I’ve seen so far, they’re incredibly nice. Every time that I’ve asked for directions or needed help of any kind, they tried to help me as much as they could, despite the fact that I couldn’t speak Spanish worth crap.

the music

Music plays a very important role here in Cuba. Other than the fact that there are tons of people out and about, the other thing I’ve noticed about Cuba at night is that there is music playing everywhere. So many of the buildings have music blaring out of them. People sit on their steps listening to boomboxes, or the stereos in their houses. It seems like no matter where you walk, you’ll always have a soundtrack to listen to.

One night, I went out looking for this nightclub, but wasn’t able to find it. I walked down this one street, and randomly heard some really loud music coming from some house, so I went over to investigate. When I walked up, the people quickly ushered me inside. Inside, there was a group of people playing musical instruments and singing, and the music was super good. The place was basically just some empty garage with a bunch of wooden chairs around for people to sit on. The musicians in the middle of the room played their hearts out. The thing that was so cool about it was that the whole experience was just so raw. These people weren’t playing some crap for tourists (there were only 2 or 3 other tourists there), in fact, it didn’t even seem like they were playing for the audience at all… they were playing just for the enjoyment of it all and were just so into it. Every 2 or 3 songs, the audience would chime in and sing along, and everyone just seemed to be having the best time ever. The musicians and singers would swap in and out, and some of them were dressed up in old schools 1950’s outfits. I dunno, I really can’t even put into words how cool this was, kicking it in this tiny ramshackle room illuminated by just one sad fluorescent light, drinking Cuba Libres, and watching these people work their magic. I felt like I was in some underground speakeasy or something. So cool.

the Casa

The casa I’m staying in is pretty basic. My room is decent sized and has a fan. When I wake up in the morning, Yuri’s wife (can’t recall her name) makes me this massive breakfast: coffee, bread, yogurt, eggs, juice, and TONS of fruit. I get to eat it on their balcony while looking down on Havana street life below. Totally perfect way to start the day. Trying to communicate w/ Yuri and his wife has been pretty tough. They know very little English, and my Spanish skills, which weren’t ever that good to begin with, are now pretty rusty. Still, unlike many other countries, at least I can communicate a little, and it’s been really fun trying to practice the little Spanish that I know. I’m really wishing that I had spent some time studying before I came on this trip, but I guess it’s a bit late for that.

Still, Yuri and his wife try to talk to me daily and I do my best to speak back. Yuri’s wife keeps giving me advice on where I should go, what to see, and how to avoid hustlers on the street. Both of them are incredibly nice.

…I’ll write more soon…

Mission Impossible

July 27th – Day 1

If you were to pick someone to sneak into an enemy country, I would probably be the last person you would choose. The problem is that I’m really not a good liar. I’m pretty bad at thinking quickly on my feet normally, and if you add in the fact that I am not a morning person and I only got 3.5 hours of sleep, things get even worse.

Caryn drops me off at the airport terminal. Queue mission impossible theme song. I walk into the airport feeling totally nervous and paranoid, thinking that any moment I will be apprehended. Walking up to the counter, the guy asks where I am traveling to today. My brain grinds to a complete halt. I stare at the guy for a while. I blink a few times. He stares back. Finally, I muster up the only response that comes into my head which is “huh?”. Phew, that’ll stall him for a bit. The second time he asks me where I’m going, I’m much more prepared and tell him that I’m going to cancun. Crisis averted.

Of course, this continues on for the rest of the day. Each time someone asks me a new question like “what hotel are you staying at in cancun?”, “how long will you be staying in cancun?”, “are you meeting anyone there?”, etc… my half-awake brain struggles to pump out an answer in a somewhat reasonable amount of time. On the plane, I’m trying to read my Lonely Planet Cuba guidebook discreetly and it even has a homemade book-cover on it so people sitting next to me don’t ask questions.

Finally, after what seems like an eternity, I get to mexico. Going through Mexican immigration, I’m super nervous, even there’s not really a reason to be. They look at my citizenship papers without any problems. Now I have only 2 hours to clear customs and hopefully get a ticket to Havana for tonight, or else I’ll be stuck in cancun. The customs line takes ages because they have to scan the luggage of all passengers from Amsterdam. Finally I get through, run over to the ticket desk and by a stroke of luck, buy the *last* available spot on tonight’s flight.

The flight to cuba is uneventful, and finally I make it. Mission completed. By the time that I change money and get a cab into town, it’s been 18 hours from the time I got dropped off at SFO. What a day…. But my day isn’t over. It’s midnight in havana and I have no hotel. The cab driver drops me off at the place I want to stay, but they end up having no rooms. Crap, how am I gonna go looking for a place at this time of night. Luckily, the guy tells me he knows of a Casa Particular that I can stay at.

Basically, in cuba, some people rent out rooms in their home to make some extra money. This is usually a bit cheaper than staying in an actual hotel, and is also a great way of seeing how people here live. I agree, and soon some guys takes me through havana’s dark streets to his home. Havana has very few streetlights and walking around at night it was hella dark. It’s kind of an eerie introduction to a city you’ve never been to before. As we walked, I noticed that there were tons of people out and about. Little groups of people sat around on curbs, on their doorsteps, and elsewhere… which is kinda odd for past midnight. Oh, and it was HOT. Like about a billion degrees, maybe even more. Wow, if it’s like this at 1am, what’s it gonna be like during the day?

I drop my stuff off at the Casa which costs $25 a night, and then tell them that I’m starving. Anywhere to eat at this time of night? The guy then takes me outside to walk through havana’s dark streets and search. First few places we check are closed. Finally we get to a Paladare, which is basically a restaurant in someone’s house (another way some Cubans earn extra money). I get dropped off there, and then the waiter tells me what they have. My choices are: pork, chicken, or seafood… but they’re out of pork and chicken. Um… I guess I’ll take seafood. Well, turns out the shrimp are $20. $20!!!! Dude, that’s more expensive than many American places. But hell, it’s 1am, I’m starving and I have no other choice. Ugh. The shrimp end up being very so-so, with rice/beans, and a very sad salad. Man, if I keep buying 20$ meals, my money will be gone in no time!

After dinner, I somehow manage to find my way back to the casa without getting lost. I have a fistful of keys to access the 4 doors I need to open to get into the house. I flop down on the bed, utterly exhausted. It’s been a hell of a day. I cant wait to go out and explore tomorrow, but all I want to do now is pass out. I crank the fan on high, but even still it’s too hot to sleep. There’s nothing worse than desperately needing sleep but not being able to fall asleep. But finally, eventually i pass out…

all messed up before it even begins…

I’m turning 30 on august 13th. Damn, it’s so crazy… I always thought 30 was so far away, and yet here it is. I wanted to do something super memorable to mark this occasion, so I decided to take a trip… to Cuba. I’ve wanted to go to Cuba for hella days. I’ve heard so many good things about and it seems like such a fascinating country, but there’s one little problem… going to Cuba is illegal.

The US has a trade embargo on Cuba, and US citizens aren’t allowed to spend money on Cuban goods. Since traveling to Cuba basically means that you’ll spend money while you’re there, traveling there is illegal too and is considered “supporting an enemy nation” or some crap. Luckily, people have figured out loopholes here and there for going. Americans fly to mexico/canada, and then fly to Cuba from there. Luckily, Cuba doesn’t stamp your passport, so as long as you can avoid getting duplicate stamps from mexico/canada, you should be able to get away with it. So, I went ahead and bought my tickets to Cancun.

the days leading up to the trip were very busy, so I had pretty much no time to get ready and it was only the day before that I had to scramble to get everything done. The main problem was the money situation. Usually I just use atms where ever I go, but you can’t use the atms in Cuba w/ an American card. So, the only thing I can do is take out money beforehand. Damn. Well, I guess I’ll just get the money from the atm in Cancun before I fly to Cuba…

With only one hour before all banks close, I remember that I only have a 500$ limit for atm transactions. Omg… better rush to the bank now!! How much should I take out? No clue. Flip through guidebook for an “average daily spend”, and it doesn’t say. Crap! I randomly decide on 75$ per day and rush to the bank to get cash. Ugh… now I’m gonna spend the first part of my trip walking around w/ over $1,000 on me. How sketchy is that?! But it gets worse. Dollars are the worst kid of money to bring to Cuba because there is a 10% extra fee for changing them. I am SO screwed.

Then, when I start compiling a list of what I need to get, I realize that I forgot my passport and my backpack down in San Jose. DOH! Luckily, my brother volunteered to drive it halfway up so I wouldn’t have to drive all the way down there. I spend the next few hours rushing around trying to frantically buy everything I need. And then pack. And then load mp3s onto the ipod.

In the end, it’s 2am by the time I go to bed. I have to be at the airport at 6:15am the next morning. Plus, I only have tix to Cancun so far, since buying the Cuba portion is not possible on credit card. There is the definite possibility of being stranded in Cancun for a few days. There is also the definite possibility of running out of money while in Cuba since there is no way of getting more. Ugh. everything is so messed up!!

*v

Passwords…

my entries for the next 2 weeks will be password protected. if you know me in person or have chatted w/ me via comments in this blog, email me at “passes[at]thisisvlad[dot]com” and i’ll send you a password…

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