Friday, July 11, 2014

Don't Let Delta Dick You Over: Ways To Approach Reservations and Customer Support

If Delta has changed your international flight reservation and sent you a worse itinerary, this might help:

So last August on the way home from the Baltics I had a layover in Atlanta, GA. It was the last Delta flight to Orlando that night, and the plane was overbooked. They offered a night's stay in a hotel, a $400 voucher, and a seat on any flight home the next day. I took the voucher and just recently redeemed it for a ticket to Oslo. I booked the flight almost a year ahead of time to score the cheapest fare, and in the end, after cashing in the voucher, I paid an additional $86. Fucking Score!

Problem is, a few months later I get this e-mail from Delta saying that they added an additional stop to my itinerary.

The original itinerary looked like this: Newark - Amsterdam - Oslo / Oslo - Paris - New York City

Out of nowhere, Delta reschedules with and squeezes in a connecting flight to Detroit? Detroit? Suck it. I'm not going to Detroit. The new itinerary looked like this:

Newark - Detroit - Amsterdam - Oslo / Oslo - Paris - JFK

Of course, I could live with this and just go on the extra flight, but there were two issues. 1) I was bringing my lady. 2) We were flying on a separate ticket from Florida to get to Newark and out of JFK.

Our original flight was supposed to land in Oslo at noon, and the new reservation had us landing after 4 pm. On the new reservation was a note that said the following:

I tried to change the flight using their website, but website said I needed to contact a reservation office. So I called them on a Monday afternoon, and I explained that we were already flying on a separate ticket to Newark, and the Detroit flight now makes four flights to get to Oslo. I then asked the woman on the phone if we could either just fly out of Detroit and save ourselves time and Delta would have two extra seats for the Newark to Detroit flight. She tells me I can't do this because she would have to rebook the entire ticket and then charge me a $300 change fee for each ticket and any additional price difference in the fare price. Discouraged, I thanked her and hung up. And, she said that because I booked my flight on a voucher that I might not be able to change my ticket, on my girlfriend's. 

I sat around for a few days thinking about how much this would suck. We are meeting someone in Oslo, and now we will be getting there four hours later. I then searched the web on this problem, and a number of sites said to simply call back and ask for them to change it again and see what they say. Apparently, you can just try again and again and maybe get lucky. 

I then went back to the website and read the green text that I posted above. I looked at "conditions apply" and discovered that I was indeed entitled to a no-fee, no fare-difference rescheduling of my itinerary. See here: 

Considering that Delta had delayed my arrival by four hours and ADDED a flight to the itinerary, I figured it was worth calling them back. Also, I looked for an alternate flight to Oslo from Newark, and there were dozens going through Paris and Amsterdam. It doesn't matter where the flight stops in the middle of the itinerary, only where it begins and ends. 

I then called Delta on a Friday night, and I explained that Delta changed my itinerary so that I was landing four hours later and also going through an additional city. I then pointed out the green text and explained what it said and what the conditions were. 

Right away, the guy says, "Well, if they changed your itinerary and ADDED another flight, I think I can reschedule and rebook that flight at no charge." 

What a difference! He and I searched for flights leaving Newark, spotted one that fit my schedule and booked it on the spot. So now, we are going from Newark - Paris - Oslo / Oslo - Paris - NYC. Best part is, the guy was nice.

He sent me a rescheduled flight confirmation for both of our tickets while still on the phone. 

By this point you might be thinking, "Well, duh, the website says you can do that." But what I find funny is that the first person I spoke with immediately blew me off. She didn't inquire about any language or options on the website that allowed me to change my ticket. Right away she scared me off with the mention of $300 change fees to even begin and then additional differences in fare prices. 

This reflects a couple of issues. For one, the first person I spoke to was quick to make the airline money and leave a customer convinced that these were simply the rules. Secondly, she proved that she adheres to some rather black and white thinking in regards to doing her job. She wanted to get through my call and onto the next. I also think that by mentioning that I was already going to have to fly up to New York from Florida on a separate ticket revealed to her that I was a "rational, savvy, budget flyer looking to save my money" as opposed to some Platinum status Corporate airline dickstroker. For her, I think it was either a "make money for Delta or fuck off" diagnosis for my call because of the information I revealed about my flight. And, I also don't think she wanted to think about it or ask anyone else what my possibilities were. 

Also, I didn't go into the call prepared. After hanging up from the first call annoyed and pissed off at what they did, I rethought my approach. When I called a second time, I VERY NICELY explained that I had booked a ticket that Delta later changed and "green writing on the web page said that I could..." 

So, the lesson here is tell Delta, or any airline for that matter, what THEY DID to fuck up. POLITELY give them as little info as you have to about your plans, your trip, your reasons. Just put the ball in their court. And if one person says no, try again a few days later. Also, think about how many people aren't calling Delta at 9 pm on a Friday night and talking to those folks like they are stupid pieces of dog shit. That guy was in a far less hurried mood than the lady on Monday. He was also eager to help and sounded a little unsurprised that Delta had changed my itinerary. 

Now, one last thing, there is a chance that Delta chose to reschedule the original itinerary because I scored a trans-Atlantic flight to Norway for very, very cheap, AND with a voucher. So Delta is making no money on my flight. They aren't even getting all the taxes they need to pay on that ticket by charging me $86. It might have helped that I bought a ticket of the same price at full fare for my girlfriend when I had to change the ticket, but I have a feeling like voucher redemption had something to do with giving me the shittiest rescheduled itinerary in the first place. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Hang Out With Aborigines, But Beware the Jun-Jiddy Man!

Bennelong, an aboriginal used for "show and tell" back in England

I've always been fascinated by aboriginal culture of Australia. As an American, the story is eerily familiar. The British showed up on boats. They tried to interact with the local indigenous folk, but a lack of cultural understanding always seemed to screw things up. Ultimately, much of the native population dies off from disease or get killed. The survivors are relocated to a small portion of their "native lands."

Here is one account of how things went wrong early on with the aboriginals. The story from 1790 has to do with a beached sperm whale and a group of sailors rowing to shore to investigate.

The cove was full of natives allured by the attractions of a whale feast; and it being remarked during the conference that the twenty of thirty which appeared were drawing themselves into a circle round the governor and his small unarmed party (for that was literally and most inexcusably the situation) the governor proposed retiring to the boat by degrees; but Bennillong, who had presented to him several natives by name, pointed out one, whom the governor, thinking to take particular notice of, stepped forward to meet, holding out both his hands toward him. The savage not understanding this civility, and perhaps thinking that he was going to seize him as a prisoner, lifted a spear from the grass with his foot, and fixing it on his throwing-stick, in an instant darted it at the governor. The spear entered a little above the collar bone, and had been discharged with such force, that the barb of it came through on the other side. Several other spears were thrown, but happily no further mischief was effected. The spear was with difficulty broken by Lieutenant Waterhouse, and while the governor was leading down to the boat the people landed with the arms, but of four muskets which they brought on shore one only could be fired.

Ahhh, the colonial period. And in 1790 I think European philosophers in general were hoping that at some point during their sea voyages they would encounter the "noble savage" as Rousseau called them. They had this idea that people not reared in European society might actually have a more pure, civil, civilization free from concepts of property or vice or greed or dishonesty. Yeah... that's as dreamy as El Dorado. Upon close examination it became clear that anywhere you find humanity you find assholery, and every culture has its own cocktail of fucked up beliefs and behaviors.

Here is a clip from Where the Green Ants Dream by Werner Herzog, a great film that illustrates the cultural discordance between settler and aboriginal culture:

Anyway, anytime I meet an Australian I ask about aborigines. The responses are just as varied as those you might hear if asking an American about Obama or their country's foreign policy. Many responses are sensitive and intelligent, showing a similar awareness about Australia's colonial history that many Americans have about their own. I think most Americans and Australians, and anyone with familial roots to a major European country are aware of their Midas touch for cultural annihilation!

But here are a few classy statements I've heard from non-aboriginal Australians over the years, for the sake of scoffing:

--"All they do is sit around drinking alcohol and sniffing glue."

--"We give them money and housing, and all they do is spend it on drink and then tear the house apart and sell the appliances and wiring for more drink. Then they tear the wood out of the house and use it for their cooking fires. In the end they just sit around a campfire burning on the foundation of the home our government gave them."

--"The abo' is a prehistoric man. He can't think like the modern man."

--"The government gives them so much money as an apology for what we did hundreds of years ago. When is it ever going to be enough?"

Last time I heard, only six of three hundred languages spoken by Aboriginals still exist. The rest are forgotten and lost, never to be relearned. No resources to do so. Much like our own Native Americans, much of what once existed is lost. Hell, by the mid-1800s most northeastern Native Americans had died  of disease or warfare. Those in the southwest escaped to high elevation mountain ranges to avoid us. The remaining ones were resettled on the Trail of Tears or eradicated in a number of wars out West and in the Southeast.

Before venturing to Australia, I used to ask, "Do aborigines live in the cities? Like, do they walk around and work jobs? The answers were mixed, but from what I could gather most aboriginals lived on their native lands with a few occasionally assimilating into society. But when I walked throughout Melbourne and Sydney I didn't see anyone I could identify as aboriginal. Then I got to Darwin where aboriginals hung out in the town. Unfortunately, some did sniff glue. One guy approached me offering me a didgeridoo for $15. His voice was thrashed, and his breath smelled like booze. But I didn't take the interaction with him as an indication that "they must all be this way." Unfortunately, like many Native Americans, there is an epidemic of alcoholism amongst the indigenous folk. On the tour into Kakadu National Park, we stopped at a petrol station for morning coffees. I was standing at a picnic table drinking a Farmer's Union Coffee (basically an Australian and better version of one of those chilled Starbucks drinks in the little jars) where an Aboriginal man startled me. He'd approached from behind asking, "Got a cigarette, mate?" I didn't, but our guide had one to give him. After our guide gave him a light, he disappeared into the bush just as quickly and quietly as he'd appeared. Ghostlike, really. It was pretty awesome.

In Darwin city, I was walking along the beach and saw a number of aboriginals just hanging out on the shore. I noticed that no tourists or white person, for that matter, interacted with them, approached them, or even looked at them. I was eager to talk to them, especially after hanging out with this weird French girl. I mentioned how I wanted to talk to some of the aborigines we saw around Darwin, and she condemned it, as if I was harassing the wildlife, or as if that "take only photographs, leave nothing but footprints" bullshit applied to them! It didn't make sense to me. They're human beings. Compassionate, interesting human beings. Why couldn't an American kid walk up to an aborigine and shoot the shit?

Oddly enough, a couple who were fishing with a hand reel for crabs had more to say to me than I did them. I simply asked what they'd caught for the day, and I ended up fishing with them for an hour. They were a husband and wife what had made their way from Western Australia on foot, camping each night and subsisting on a mix of store bought groceries and tucker found along the way. 

"Florida?" the man asked, "that's right up there near Canada. Right, mate?"

Of course, I can't remember their names, long aboriginal names, but that hour of hanging out and fishing for crab with them was simply a lesson of having the nerve to approach a stranger and have a friendly conversation--a rather Australian thing to do. More and more it seems like this is harder and harder for people to do in general. And, it was awesome to just hang out with aborigines. Most folks only learn about aborigines from the movies.

I remember I took a course in college called "The Australian Experience" which consisted of reading about the life in Australia from the early days of 18th century penal convicts and free settlers up to the 20th century. Our professor was visiting from Sydney, and I remember her talking about some of the complications in getting aboriginals to assimilate with today's Australia. A big issue, she explained, was the notion of walkabout. When one tries to hire an aboriginal for a job, the aboriginal might just not show up one day, having gone walkabout. This, I can imagine, is complicating and annoying. Imagine a carpenter who hires an aboriginal as his helper yet lost him to this concept of "walkabout." And what about the concept of time? Property? Money? Does an aboriginal show up on time? The fact that they don't have to, the fact that "walkabout" still exists in the world today as a real thing that happens, is beautiful. It is one example of a displaced culture biting it's thumb at the hegemony of the Western world. The "global village" merely replaced colonialism. Good on them to disregard it and not even muster the energy it would take to give it the middle finger.

It also serves as evidence that the colonial impact on aboriginals is, perhaps, slightly less devastating than it was on Native Americans. I can't think of anywhere in the United States where Native Americans can wander from one side of the country to another subsisting off of the land, and it being allowed without a hassle such as "this is my property, get out!" While some Native American tribes have had a great opportunity with casinos, they only have those casinos because their lawyers found loopholes in the law regarding their rights as "nations." Really, if I had to compare the ugly history of the United States and the Native Americans to the English settlers and the aborigines, the aborigines have faired better in a number of ways. The government declared a day of apology, many aboriginals have received reparation pay as an apology for half-casting, and tribal lands such as Arnhem land require permission before non-aboriginals can enter. This is done in an effort to preserve what is left of aboriginal culture. That's pretty impressive, considering American elementary schools still teach kids that an indian named Squanto helped the Pilgrims survive in the early days of the colonies and that they and the indians gathered around a table and all had a big Thankgiving dinner. Most people never learn that Squanto was the survivor and millions of others natives would perish.

Based on my interactions with aboriginals on my first trip to Australia, I took the opportunity to chat with two aboriginal ladies in a bar on my second trip while in Cairns. Granted, not every bar in Cairns is frequented by aboriginals. I was at a bar called the Railway Inn. Inside was a mix of aboriginals and some serious bruiser-looking men still in their hazard clothing at the end of a workday. With a camera in hand, I got a dirty look from a few of the white folk, (I would later tell some local skaters in Cairns that I hung out there only to be met with surprise, for the Railway is a bar of aboriginals, derelicts and "people that are hooked on ice". People also "get shot there!" said the kid. But why would an American fear a place where shots are fired?) but these two ladies asked where I was from.

"What ya doin' in Australia, Mister?" asked the one on the right.

"Oh, just seeing the country. First time in Cairns. I went out on the reef for a few days, and now I'm fixing to rent a car and explore. I heard there were rain forests north of here, and aboriginal lands. Are they worth driving to?"

"Indeed. You should look for my cousin. At the Albatross Hotel. He'll take you fishing," said the lady on the left.

"Do you have a phone number?"

"No number. Robbie Nelson. If you go ask for him at the Albatross, you'll find him. There he'll take you out to catch barra. You know the fish?"

"Barramundi? It's tasty. We have it in America now. At the restaurant I work, we had it."

"You've eaten barra? But have you caught one?"


"Well, Robbie will take you. Bloody strong fish. They fight you. But watch out for crocs. Keep a fire burning all night. Otherwise the crocs will eat through your eski looking for barra, and maybe eat you."

"That dangerous is it?"

"Yes, and there is another one to watch for... the Gungganydji man!" (Pronounced like "jun-jiddy")

"Who is the Gungganydji man?" I asked. 

"A small bugger. He will sneak up in the night as you sleep and take your barra. He'll take whatever he wants. And he's quick. And small."

"Small? How small?" 

"A very small man, but very strong. The Gungganydji man will wrestle you and win. They love to wrestle. He'll always beat you in a wrestling match. He lives in the forest, with no clothes. They are little ones of us. Very little, but be careful. They are powerful." 

Again, how would one have such a great experience if they couldn't get past their weird colonial-elephant-in-the-room guilt and say "What's up?" to an aborigine. What is travel without interaction with the locals? It's a lesson far too many people will never learn. 

I was intrigued enough by the story of the Gungganydji man that I researched who he was. It turns out it is not a man, but a tribe, an extinct tribe

The woman's description of small, strong men came from the fact that the Gungganydjis were pygmies. The woman I spoke to, who was most likely a child of an aboriginal half-caste or one of the stolen generation herself, must have either directly experienced the Gungganydji or grew up hearing lore about them. The tribe went extinct in the latter half of the 1900s apparently, but her story intrigued me enough to venture northwards... until I realized that I had no idea of how to find the Albatross Hotel. Nor could I spare the two or three days to go fishing when I needed to drive 1800+ km from Cairns to Brisbane in just over a week, at a max of 50 mph, and that drive pretty much sucked.

It would have been fun wrestling the Gungganydji men with you, instead, Robbie Nelson. Sorry I never made it. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Reluctantly Buying A Tour Into the Outback

As an American with summer vacations, the cool thing about Australia is that you can go enjoy the winter time June-August while Florida is an unbearable, humid, mosquito ridden hellhole. Florida is a great place to live as long as you can afford to leave. Winter in Australia is like a Floridian winter. Snow is rare and limited to the Blue Mountains, but the air is dry and the daytime weather is gorgeous. And in the Northern Territory, wintertime is the safe time to venture out into the Outback. In the summer, the rainy season floods the estuaries around the Northern coast and waters flood far inland. The waters recede as the dry season comes along, but humongous saltwater crocodiles get stuck in residual pools of water--sometimes miles from the shore of any river or ocean. A few days prior to our journey into the bush, some aborigines and wildlife officers had to remove a 4.5 meter crocodile from a residual water hole. That's about 20 feet. As the local authorities remove the marooned crocodiles, the tourists and campers journey in to the same pools of water to cool off. So while I say that it is annoying to have to hire a tour into the outback, there are reasons for them. An experienced guide can spot a saltwater crocodile, which will eat you, versus a freshie that will just sit on the shore sunning itself. Oh, and they point out snakes and spiders and all that as well, and cook and clean and drive and all that.

So while staying at a hostel in Darwin, I found myself sitting in the office looking at an album full of brochures for tours into Kakadu National Park and Livingstone National Park. The woman working in the office was manager and a local travel agent who insisted that nobody would let me venture anywhere on my own and that a "proper tour" was the only way to go. Sigh... Another tour. Another Australian selling tours. Tours of tours of people touring. So I'm looking through this album of brochures and photos, and I'm so bummed because all I see are these young, strapping Australian lads taking pasty Irish girls into the bush. I was already over the whole "young adults bonding" crap before I even began, yet I ended up choosing this Kakadu 4x4 Safari tour where we would camp and explore a rather vast area of wilderness for a few days. I was keen on the "aboriginal guide" that led us. I was told to be ready to leave at 6 am.

So I get up, and there are all these other kids from around the world waiting to be picked up for tours. One by one they get picked up. A Taiwanese kid goes off with some nineteen year old guy driving a huge bus and wearing no shirt. A Swiss kid goes off in some military-looking, desert trekking vehicle with yet another stereotypical, young poonhound tour guide. Then this guy shows up...

What the fuck? Score! My guide was "right out of the shed" as my friends from Adelaide would say. This dude had no shoes on. This dude had holes in his hat. This dude was gnarly looking. So by this point I had a tad more enthusiasm. At least this guy looked like a bushman who might have sheared sheep back in the day. Turns out, Pat, was much more a bushman than that. This guy's experience in the bush came from exterminating endemic water buffalo in a national effort to get rid of them all in order to sell meat to the U.S. Problem is, after turning hundreds of thousands of water buffalo into dog food or exotic steaks, the U.S. said no thanks.

After picking up about six or seven others, we drove a few hundred km into Kakadu National Park, stopping at the Adelaide River Inn to buy last minute supplies.

 Inside the Adelaide River Inn, they've got a stuffed water buffalo. Not just any water buffalo either... the one that was in Crocodile Dundee. He apparently did stunts and died of natural causes or some shit. Anyway, at this point I'm assuming that every Australian is embarrassed by that movie. So I ask Pat, "What do you think of that movie? I mean, all that 'that's not a knife' stuff and the zany antics of taking his outback skills to New York City?" Pat replies, "Oh, I thought it was okay. I mean, you have a bushman who meets a worldly woman from New York City, and by just being a good guy and practicing chivalry they fall in love. Just shows the rewards of being a gentleman no matter where you are." Fuck me! Astounded. The dude mulled that one over. Here I am expecting him to gag at the mentioning of the title, and instead I get this analysis that leads me to conjure up thoughts of this guy chewing a long piece of grass, watching the sun set over Darwin harbor and coming up with an original opinion. Not bad.

Of course, after hours of driving in a car full of young tourists, the day ended at a swimming hole. The one that you see in, again, Crocodile Dundee, when he spears a fish for Sue before being picked up by Wally. Geez, it's obvious I've watched those movies too many times. While Pat had endless amounts of information about the history of the area, the wildlife, the differences between fresh and saltwater crocodiles, all of which I'm finding fascinating, the rest of the group finds him to be too talkative and gradually branch off to "enjoy their vacation." Much of our conversation consists of comparing Australia to Florida, what dangerous things live there, what can kill you, what the swamps are like. Eventually, our discussion leads us to conclude that a Florida native who can find an alligator, identify the states four poisonous snakes, camp, make a fire, and tell which bodies of water are safe to swim in is essentially a bushman equivalent. 

What astounded me was the overall disregard for his vast amount of experience and knowledge of the area. I was nerding out, but perhaps the pale gals from Ireland were hoping for a strapping poonhound as opposed to a legitimate bushman. Basically, for the next four days, I'm talking shit with Pat about all things bush, Australia, aboriginal, while the rest of the crew swats at gnats and keeps to themselves. And, being that I like to cook, I'm the only one volunteering to help.

Kangaroo and bean burritos with apple and orange relish.

Swimming hole goanna.

This guy from Switzerland was pretty cool. He'd been traveling the world and had some cool videos from the 'Stan countries. I think his name was like, Urbann or something. 

Cane toad, invasive, poisonous species killing anything that tries to eat it. 

Much of a tour of the bush consists of walking a few km through the countryside, getting hot, stopping at a fresh water source, filling your canteen and swimming for a little while. Not bad. It's gorgeous out there. And the areas you swim and drink from are given the nod as safe by the experts. 

I remember there was a freshwater croc lying at the bottom of this swimming hole, but those aren't the dangerous ones. I swam in here and drank the water. That's what's funny. This is the only water to drink. No hoses or water fountains, just rain that has yet to evaporate. 

Taipan, second deadliest snake in Australia. Luckily, snakes that live in true wilderness such as the Northern Territory slither off when they hear you coming.
 Distant kangaroo

So while most of the tourists kept to themselves or walked away when he began to talk, Pat would tell these crazy stories, to whomever was listening, about life as a bushman. He didn't drink much anymore because of how much booze he consumed in his younger days. He told me, "It's horrible for the renal system, alcohol. When I worked in the bush, we slept in hammocks or laid our swags out by the fire. We had to order enough supplies, food and booze for a month at a time, as we were out in the middle of the wilderness killing water buffalo. I used to order an entire pallet of Bundaberg rum at a time, and another pallet of beer. And that was just my alcohol supply. My mates had their own. To keep our beer cold we used to put fertilizer in an eski (cooler) full of water. You'd get a chemical reaction that made the water really, really cold. Throw some beers in there, chill them, only took a minute, take them out, dip them in another bucket of water to wash off the chemicals--cold beer. They used to call me Psycho Pat. I was an angry young man, out here with the other bushman I'd do some crazy things drinking 500 ml of rum and go for more. 

When I asked him about the water buffalo he killed, he said there were two types of meat. "If we had to chase the buffalo down in our 4-wheel drives, we'd pull beside it, and we had this device that would clamp down around its horns to hold it still so we could shoot it. Or, we'd just jump on them and rope them to the ground, then shoot them. But killing them that way filled their meat with adrenalin, and we'd put them in one tractor trailer that kept the meat frozen for dog food. The other water buffalo we would sneak up and shoot, and try to get them right behind the ear so they'd drop dead on the spot. That meat had no chance for the adrenalin to run through, so that would be put in another trailer for sale to restaurants. Sold that at a higher price. Bloody good eating, water buffalo, if you kill'em right. Problem was, we came close to killing them off, but then the U.S. backed out of the deal, and I was out of the job..."

Somewhere, in this very British-Isle-originated-looking man was aboriginal blood, because Pat had access to aboriginal cave paintings, which requires some sort of license or authorization. 

The turtle in the above painting was painted before the last ice-age, during a normal period of global warming, where the oceans flooded up within a close distance to this rock shelter. Now, the ocean is over one hundred miles away from these paintings.
Layers of paint on this rock date back at least 40,000 years, but some argue that layers behind reach as far back as 60,000 or more. I don't know. I'm no expert. 

Of course, the finale of these trips involves something very familiar to a Florida native--feeding crocodiles. The main difference between the American alligator and the saltwater crocodile is that a saltwater crocodile is not scared of a human and will eat a human like it would anything else. The American alligator, when not fed by humans, will often avoid humans or just sort of watch them when they come near before swimming off. But to really get the tourists excited, our last day involved a crocodile feeding frenzy. Here is a pic of the horse meat used to lure them...

Much like in Florida, our guide hung meat from a string at the end of a stick and made the crocs jump for us... Here are some clips...

And, like, most tours, our drive home consisted of the tourist shops and photo opportunities near large magnetic termite mounds....
Just call me Teddy Roosevelt! 

As our group made its way out of Kakadu National Park and in between stops at Aboriginal art galleries (you know, make sure your mates get a chance to make some of the cut), our 4x4 came to a crossroads, and Pat recognized two women coming towards us. "How you goin'?" he asked. Sitting shotgun, I noticed as he and the ladies talked that there was a teenage boy in the back seat. After chatting for a minute or so, Pat waved goodbye and continued onward toward Darwin. "Crazy," he said, "the woman driving is me friend's ex-wife. One day she just told him she preferred women over men." 

"Man, that's crazy," I said. 

"Yeah, not an easy thing to hear, I reckon." 

"Not at all," I said. 

"Yeah, she took her son along as well. Now the kid is living with his mum and her partner. Me mate isn't happy about that either. Gotta sting him, I reckon."


"But," he sighed, "life is too short to live for anyone but yourself. Might hurt but..." 

And at that moment, a wave of elation came over me. He was right. Pat, the bushman, was fucking right. You can't live for anyone but you. And his statement really burned deep, because about two weeks prior to flying to Australia my girlfriend at the time told me she was into girls. Granted, she was dating a girl when I met her, but she dumped that girl and hooked up with me, and we were in love for quite some time. We'd had our run, no complaints, a good run, but things were changing. I mean, I knew on many nights with her that something was wrong, but I just waited because I think I felt I knew the answer. And it hurt when I had to hear that she was unable to stop thinking of being with women and was considering dating women. It was a heavy load to carry with me on the "break" we would take on our relationship. Conveniently, I was headed to Australia for six weeks and she to Vietnam and Singapore with her college program soon after she told me. 

And yet, it took a journey into the Outback, long walks through desert, relaxing dips in residing flood pools, some eerily similar Floridian reptile feeding and four days with a bushman I would never see again, to happen upon two lesbians out in the desert only to hear this bushman say something that, somewhere deep down inside I knew already but couldn't muster myself. My relationship would be over soon, and to many others it would seem like a brutally devastating reason as to why. But to me, it made perfect sense. What was her alternative anyway? 

Those few words of Pat's reflect the beauty of travel, that you've got to escape your routine to gain new perspectives. It's a shame too, that none of those other kids in our group got that one integral moment of perspective or philosophical insight as I did, but that's their problem. Good on ya, Pat. Those years out in the bush roping water buffalo had benefits most folks will never experience. Afterward, I flew to Adelaide to meet up with my friends, and meet new friends, and from some of them I would hear the "that's gotta fucking suck, mate" or the "you turned her gay?"But it was easy to shrug off. I mean, I was happy to help her and see her go on to pursue what she wanted in life. Wasn't I already doing the same? 

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Australia and The Challenges of Finding True Adventure

I don't understand why so many Yanks rag on Australia. I heard a neighbor of mine ragging on Australia, and I never talked to him again. He's a creep anyway. He was complaining that Australians end everything in "ee." I mean, they do end many words with an "ee" on the end. Blimey. Crikey. But then they do it with occupations as well. Like when my friend Andrew caught a tradey using his power outlet to do some work in the house across the street. Andrew unplugged the cable, and the guy came out all pissed. Andrew was like, "Why are you plugged in over here? That's my power. Get your own power, tradey!" Andrew is not a tradey. He's an urban professional. I wonder how they end that in "ee."

Anyway, sadly, Americans get a really shitty impression of Australia from the following:

Outback Steakhouse

the Crocodile Hunter 

and Paul Hogan. 

Unfortunately, the impression that most Americans get from Australia comes from the Americans that market Australian culture. Nobody I know in Australia had ever heard of Outback Steakhouse, but holy shit the assholes at Outback have most yanks convinced that everyone eats Bloomin' Onions and shrimp on the barbie every day in Australia. My friend Macca from Adelaide heard this, paused and said, "I don't think I've evah cooked a prawn on a barbie! Sounds bloody good though!"
Tell an Australian that the motto at Outback is "No Rules, Just Right," and they scoff. I'll cut Steve Irwin slack because that poor bastard died in the name of conservation, and I loved that guy for his efforts. Good surfer too. I actually got a text message the day he died from my mates in Australia that read "Figured you should hear it from us first. Steve Irwin got killed by a sting ray on the Great Barrier Reef." I happened to be at a party with a stage and got on the microphone and announced his death to the audience only to be met with about fifty "Fuck You's!" Then, it took about twelve hours for the American news agencies to find out and report the story. As for Paul Hogan, who would have guessed that a shitty 80's movie would be such a box office success... and then a second... and then a very, very bad third movie. I'm not going to lie. I love Crocodile Dundee I and II, especially part II when they lead the cocaine dealers into all the traps set for them in the bush. 

Not only that, but I grew up with a deep interest in Australia. My Dad always said, "If America goes to shit, Australia is the place to go." Between him introducing me to Australia as some sort of wonderland at a young age and watching BMX Bandits every time I stayed home from school when I wasn't feeling well, it was always in the cards. Then in France in 2004, I met a couple from Adelaide who I would spend exploring the mountains around Chamonix with for a few days. After talking shit about politics, eating these addictive chicken sandwiches from some place called Poco Loco, and drinking a few bottles of wine, I knew I had some friends to visit. 

Australia CAN be, simply... fucking awesome. There are a few factors about traveling there that can be annoying. I mean, I intend to criticize aspects of its tourism industry, but Australia is like all the good stuff you find in America after you filter out the bullshit, with a twist of Britain, and a pinch of socialized medicine. Instead of running you through the whole story of both trips I've taken to Australia, I'll skip Sydney and Melbourne for the most part. Everyone has a photo of the Sydney Opera House, so I'll spare you mine. 

My first trip was six weeks in May-June 2006. I flew from Orlando to San Francisco for free using my Airtran points I dug out of the dumpster at Wendy's. Then I flew to LAX, then to Melbourne, took a train to Sydney, flew to Darwin, then down to Adelaide, up to Brisbane, back to Melbourne then home. Looked like this: 

In order, I'll list the three conditions of travel to and within Australia that one should consider...

Flights: Most people say, "Ooh, I'd love to go to Australia, but isn't the flight really long?" Yes. It is. If you only get a week off from your job to go on vacation, Australia will not work for you. If you were to start from Florida like me, it takes 22 hours of time in the air. You lose TWO DAYS on the flight over, and you land back home on the same date you left 20+ hours ago due to the dateline. But if you can squeeze three, maybe four weeks off or longer, then break the flight up into shorter stints. And, even with three or four weeks off, every other tourist you meet from another country is going to say, "Wow, you Americans take the shortest vacations!" I spent three days in San Francisco skateboarding with my buddies before flying over. I then flew down to LAX and got on a Qantas flight which stopped in Auckland for a few hours before heading to Melbourne. From LAX to Auckland it was just over ten hours. We then had a weird, middle of the night layover in Auckland before continuing for four more hours to Melbourne. But between the free beer, the food and the television and movies offered by Qantas, it was an easy flight. You won't get the free cans of Victoria Bitter on any of the other airlines. 

Once in Australia, I tried taking a train, but the comfort levels of an overnight train from Melbourne to Sydney and the old man that I think was hoping to buy me a coffee to see my wiener were enough for me to consider flying. From there I few on Jetstar and Virgin Australia to bounce around at ridiculously cheap fares. 

Hosteling and Backpackers: One major difference about backpacking in Australia is the type of backpackers you interact with when hosteling there. But first off, let me point out that Australian hostels have notorious bed bug problems. I've been twice in the winter time, and even in the cold times of year kids are trucking bed bugs in on their gear. I can recall three hostels from memory that treated for bed bugs when I was there the first time. You'll be sleeping in a room, and the kids in every other bed get bit while you sleep soundly, which was my experience. Either way, while most European hostels supply your sheets, I recall many kids coming into rooms with sleeping bags that must have been infested or using their sleeping bags when hostels didn't supply sheets. Without even unrolling their gear, they constantly infected the rooms. Nonetheless, I stayed mostly in hostels or camped while there. 

Backpackers in Australia are primarily British and a mix of Canadians and Europeans. In Europe you run into so many other Americans, many who are on a 10 day, 8 country drilled march of naive, Yank ambition, sadly. I've rarely run into Americans either time in Australia, but droves of fucking British and Canadian kids are there, living in the hostels along with the bed bugs. They go there to work on a sort of commonwealth visa--something the Americans gave up when they threw all the tea into Boston harbor. Now, in many traveling situations I'm eager to hang out with non-Americans, especially English people as I get all nostalgic about London and shit, but in Australia these kids get really annoying. Why? Because they are fucking kids. Many of them are, like, 19-21, many are on their "gap year" between high school and university, where the Imperial sailor in their British genetics goes journeying for a year to learn about the world. A number of these kids are living in the hostel at which you are staying. Considering that I was twenty-six my first time there, these kids got annoying very quickly. Also, because many are heading to "Uni" as they call it, in a year, they are uptight, condescending and obnoxious. We act like the whole "I've gone to college and learned big words and can point out how this or that comment is offensive because it harks back to our colonial past or our embarrassing history blah blah blah" but the British kids have this disease as well. People give Americans a bad travel reputation, but I'm going to make an educated guess that the 19-21 year-old POMs (Prisoners of Mother, Queen Elizabeth) that carry the worst rep down under when it comes to public drunkenness, rudeness, lack of manners, etiquette etc. They also ragged on America constantly, and while I'm game to discuss the fucked up foreign policy of my country any day of the week, I couldn't bear more than a few days of all the yahoos fresh out of Hampstead Heath and Cardiff and Stoke-On-Trent and their pimply, little, late-teenage mouths babbling on about it. I'll give them some slack. They are all young, and stupid and pumping their wages back into the local bars and trying to snog and fek themselves into blackouts. I bring this up only because my first trip in Australia, where I experienced these kids, led to my more enjoyable, second, more solitary trip to Australia. 

Organized Tours: This is my major complaint about Australia. It seems you can't do anything on your own considering how many people are urging you to take a "tour" with a professional guide. Granted, if you live in Switzerland and have never seen a snake before I can imagine why a guide to the outback is a good idea. People have rented cars only to drive them into mud holes and be eaten by crocodiles in the outback. But I'm a Florida native. We have alligators, five poisonous snake varieties, rip currents, hurricanes, jellyfish, sinkholes, pedophiles, meth heads, and invasive pythons and coyotes. 
To be given no choice but to buy into a tour of the outback was really a bummer. To not be able to rent a 4x4 and explore on my own and try to hypnotize a water buffalo like Crocodile Dundee was bullshit.

Granted, it's bad for business if tourists go on their own and die from a spider or snake bite or crocodile attack. The conservation efforts of promoting Australia's biodiversity in addition to the money that it brings into the economy would disappear if the fear factor of visiting Australia were to be ramped up much more than people do already. It's already a common, annoying topic of conversation amongst Americans of whether or not the country is "dangerous." 

But, it really does get annoying that EVERYTHING you aim to do has not one, but many tours offering to take you for a price. Wanna see penguins south of Melbourne? Tour. Wanna go the Barrier Reef and dive? Fifty tours to choose from. On big boats, little boats, sail boat. Wanna see the beach where dolphins swim up to you? $100. College kids looking to meet an aborigine? Twelve aboriginals are offering to walk you through the bush and eat some bush tucker. Wanna play a didgeridoo? One thousand assholes will pick you up, take you to the forest and play the didge... Tours, tours, tours. 

The one tour that stands out most in memory is when I was in Town of 1770. Yes, it's named that. That's when Captain Cook found the area I guess. Some Swedes told me you could chase kangaroos on miniature Chopper-looking mopeds that you could rent. So, I happened to be driving by this area while journeying through a very stupid decision by car from Cairns to Brisbane (1000 miles at 55 mph in nothing but cane fields), and I stayed the night. The next day I discover that I can't just rent a scooter. I have to take a tour. I was already there and said, "Fuck it. Alright." Then some shriveled up bikey (biker, in Australian), has about fifty kids waiting around and arriving by bus load to be outfitted with a helmet and learn the basics of riding a scooter. Then we had to learn the rules of riding when there are fifty+ kids on scooters clustered together going about 40 mph. 

On top of being with such a crowd was way the guy then went around asking, "Who wants wedges? I need to place the order ahead." So, say, twenty-five people wanted potato wedges, he calls, places the order at a restaurant we'll be making a pit stop at. He makes money. The restaurant makes money. Did we see kangaroos? Yes. Did we get to chase them? No. That's not the bikey's fault, and the tours and the notion that one tour company suggests another or makes sure they stop at this art gallery or this restaurant is nothing new either. I was just hoping Australians didn't ALSO do this. I'm from the capital of this bullshit! Orlando. Mickey Mouse. A swamp that sucks up billions of dollars a year and sends you back home with Chinese made souvenirs! 

And when you come from Orlando, London, Tokyo, New York City, Paris, Cairo, Hong Kong, Sydney, or any other tourism hub, you don't want to feel like you are at home. You want to find your own adventure, one that far exceeds that backdoor bullshit Rick Steves is always talking about...

Part 2: Adventures in the Outback and Bunny Woop Woop...

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Americans Going to Cuba: Part Two.. the Ethics of...

"Cuba is very communist and drab"
After saying the above, no e-mails reached home. 
If you have ever known a Cuban-American born in Cuba, chances are they hold a huge grudge towards Fidel Castro. If you live in Florida, especially South Florida, you've most likely known a handful of spiteful Cuban emigres. The grudge has merit. Fidel, Che and Camilo roused thousands of peasants out of the countryside and into the cities, chasing Fulgencio Batista out of the country and into the United States, and many wealthy, or at least comfortable citizens had their property seized and re-distributed amongst the peasants. If you've ever read Machiavelli, you might remember his warning that if you take a man's property he will never forgive you. He'll hold a grudge and plot to kill you for taking his shit for a much longer time than if you took his wife or daughter. So how did the Cuban Revolution fuck things up for American travelers looking to explore a communist country?

              It's easy to list:

1. Lots of pissed off people washed ashore in Miami.
2. Many of them worked their asses off and became politically influential in America.
3. Russia decided to bankroll the communist-led island.
4. A Soviet-aided communist country 90 miles from Florida was way too close for comfort for many Americans in the paranoid 1960s, especially if the Soviets were going to store some bombs in Cuba.

5. A strategy of making people miserable through sanctions until they overthrow their own failing government is a popular political tactic in American politics (North Korea, Soviet Union in the 80s-90s, Iran, Iraq, etc.) It hasn't worked, yet... Russia fell apart with a little bit of our help, but much of the Soviet Union's failure stems from reluctant Soviets not enthused about being Soviet at all for 70+ years...

             The reasons behind the embargo and ban of American travel to Cuba stem from the above, but isn't the Cold War over? Yeah--but millions of pissed off emigres are still alive and voting. That's what it really boils down to. But something that many emigres don't realize is that Castro, in a really shitty way, was attempting to end the exploitation of Cuba's peasantry that had gone on since the days of the slave trade. I mean, consider Cuba's history. Europeans took slaves from Africa, dumped them on the island to cut sugar cane with other enslaved natives from the island. Those materials were shipped back to Europe, processed into consumer goods, and then some of those goods went to buy more slaves. The cycle went on for centuries. And Cuba, all the way up until the ousting of Battista, was never an island of fairness. A large portion of Cuba’s population toiled like slaves in the sugar cane fields from the days of Columbus to the 1950s, cutting sugar that provided a significant percentage of worldwide demand, while the tourism and gambling industries, run by United States mafia families, lined the pockets of Batista and organized crime bosses. In other words, government corruption resulted in Cuba’s national income going into the pockets of non-Cubans and a few government officials, rather than investing in the welfare and infrastructure of Cuba, caused the poor to become poorer. So to a majority of the Cuban population, revolution sounded awesome. Just ask an actual Cuban in Cuba, not an exile.

           Now let's think about all those Cuban-Americans holding a grudge. It sucks that your property was taken away. It wasn't the right way to go about fixing Cuba's historical problem of being exploited, but American politics have essentially led Cuban-Americans with influence, be it a vote or money or power, to make things worse in every aspect.

Getting around the embargo or "supporting Castro":

           Again, I'll bring up that girl I dated whose mom's boyfriend pilfered rum and cigars from old ladies bringing them back from Havana at MIA. That girl's mom preached to me that by simply visiting Cuba and spending a dollar I was "funding the regime." The philosophy of the embargo, therefore, is to drain the regime of money until it falls apart. But whose idea is this? Who is still pushing this idea in politics? The fact that the U.S. government neglects to remove both the embargo and the travel ban against Cuba are direct results of roughly one million Cuban exiles with heavy lobbying power, many of these exiles lost their vast land holdings to Castro and the people.The Fanjul brothers, Alfy(Democrat) and Pepe(Republican), yield a great portion of such influence. Castro seized their grandfather’s sugar plantations, and these two brothers fled to America. Alfy and Pepe now own the Flo-Sun Sugar company, the sugar producer responsible for much of the Everglades’ pollution, as well as Bacardi Rum Company. Because these two men had to rebuild their family fortunes from nothing, they continuously lobby to punish Cuba’s government as well as its citizens--those who lack the means or desire to escape. To assure that this will happen, the pair donates excessive amounts of money to both Democrat and Republican presidential candidates to assure that decisions regarding Cuba be decided in favor of the Fanjul agenda—an agenda aimed at making sure that communism not be funded from the Fanjul’s government-seized family sugar.
A dude buying a pet bird. Probably my favorite photo of the whole trip. 

When former vice president Al Gore announced his plans to require sugar companies to clean-up the Everglades, Bill Clinton received a direct phone call from one of the Fanjul brothers reminding the then president of the Fanjuls’ campaign contributions. The reception of this call interrupted a famous cigar-dildo incident between the president and Monica Lewinsky. Sponsors of the 1996 Helms-Burton Law, the law that tightened the embargo on Cuba and allowed Cuba-Americans to sue foreign companies that use or invest in nationalized properties, also received sizable campaign contributions to politicians to assure the law passed. And, because the Fanjul’s cover both sides of the political spectrum, they always get their way. As a favor to Cuban-exile constituents, President George W. Bush closed down a number of travel agencies that specialized in providing travel licenses for Cuba. Some exiles argue that tourist dollars that go to Castro would bring the lives of Cubans to a higher level of comfort, so by depriving Cuba of tourist dollars the people will suffer and starve, realize it's Castro's fault and revolt. They might also starve or die from a lack of medicinal needs, but exiles hope for a more utilitarian outcome of democracy for all. Realistically, all the embargo does is cause Cubans to consider the following: Is it worth finding a way to America to start over and see how capitalism will either enrich or add misery to my life? Or is it worth living in the culture I was born into, one that is all I know and satisfies me? 

The way by which individuals influence U.S. foreign policy regarding Cuba has another impact that far outweighs economic punishment. The Cuban-exile constituency, because its majority resides in Florida, can determine the outcome of a presidential race. This is due to Florida’s swing-state status. Cuban exile constituents, at times, influence world history. George W. Bush, for example, won the election against Al Gore by 537 votes. Bush can thank the eighty percent of Cuban-American exiles that voted for him. Regardless of political party, United States foreign policy, up until the election of Barack Obama, focused on punishing Fidel Castro. And Obama himself can't escape criticism by Cuban-American politicians, like Marco Rubio, for attempting to change our relationship with Cuba even slightly. Rubio criticized Obama for shaking hands with Raul Castro at the funeral of Nelson Mandela. Rubio can swear up and down that the "regime" supports terrorism in Cuba and abroad, but this is really about keeping the political sentiments of aging Cuban exiles to remain pro-Republican. It's a huge number of people, but they are aging, dying people. The Latino vote in 2012 voted by a large proportion Democrat. So is it really about terrorism or communism? Or is the embargo and the argument to keep it alive anything but political agitation? 
Pop into the local library to peruse the reading list...

Sure, Cubans get to ready plenty about America! 

Should old people or politicians stand in the way of you going to Cuba? No. They are not making an argument that ethically reaches for the "good" but rather for their own self-gain and narcissistic attempt to strike back at the government that hurt them. It's not your problem. If you are kid with family threatening to disown you if you ever return to the motherland.... Go and don't tell them, but read the points below as well. 

Now let's turn this argument toward the ethics of being IN Cuba. There are a whole handful of sad realities that come to life once you are there.


               Why would someone be willing to have sex with a, quite often, ugly motherfucker? For money, duh!

              Maybe in Amsterdam one could argue that the women selling their bodies really want to be there. I'm not going to argue that all prostitutes are in their position against their will or that, psychologically, they aren't really choosing to prostitute themselves when they say and actually believe they are. One could, after weighing their options, decide that prostitution suits them, but if you consider the economic situation in Cuba it's hard to argue that the girl in the above photo really wanted to be spending time with that old fart from Germany. 

             I shot the above photo at a Los Van Van concert. It cost about $35 to get into the show, and then drinks and food were pricey as well. The girl gets to go to a show that costs her more than one month's salary at a typical state job. She gets to drink. She gets to eat far better food than what is rationed by the state. But the ultimate price is determined by the sex tourist. She has to fulfill his whims. Male prostitutes have to fulfill whims as well. It is not uncommon to be approached by a young woman or man offering their "services." At one beach in Trinidad, Cuba, a young woman asked me if I wanted to "take a walk." After I declined she took some other guy on a walk. She took him to a bathroom and came walking out minutes later. She then came up to me a second time wiping her lips and asking if I had change for the 5 CUC note the man had just paid her. I know someone might read this and think, "Awesome, a $6.50 blow job. But it's not awesome. 

            But what ultimately got her here? The embargo. Cuba might have thrived had it not been for the embargo. Rations might be larger for each individual. Last time I checked this was the per person ration: 2 lbs dried beans, 7 lbs rice, 7 lbs sugar, 20 oz. canned fish, 10 loaves of bread, one bar of soap, and a pack of cigars (only if born before 1964). Not much. Jobs might more adequately afford consumer goods from around the world. Instead, the average Cuban makes around $20-$60 a month. A bathing suit costs half a month's salary. Food that is not provided through rations must be purchased with CUC, not the peso that the citizens are paid by the state. How do you get CUC? Sometimes you get them by prostituting yourself. 

            Granted, there are plenty of people I've known in America that are willing to fuck a date as long as the date paid for a fun night out, but this situation is drastically worse. Sex tourists from the entire globe look at Cubans as ripe and desperate. If you wanna bang a prostitute, go to Amsterdam--state regulated, STD tested regularly. You'll be less of an asshole. 

            Of course, politicians and exiles will point to prostitution as a sad reality that is a result of the "regime's oppression" when, really, they helped make conditions bad enough to compel a country of well-educated young people to go this route. Prostitutes are not going to "become so miserable they revolt." 

Apartheid: This topic sounds weird even to me since "apartheid" brings South Africa to mind, but because we stayed in the tourist hotels it was obvious--whiter the skin, better the job. In the official tourism industry of Cuba, where the major hotels and resorts funnel huge tax revenues for the government, it is quite obvious that lighter-skinned Cubans are getting the tourist industry jobs that make CUC tips in addition to their government wage. So basically, you can be a light-skinned Cuban working in a hotel making an average of CUC 300 a month in tips while an educated surgeon in the country-side has to make a basic living off of state wages $60- $80? and rations. That surgeon probably has his own hustle going on, but I am just pointing out some of the inadequacies in the system. Within this system, in addition to tips, is also the system of "a la izquierda" or "from the left"--an underhanded exchange when a local offers you something in trade (lobster dinner, cigars, rum) for a consumer product they can't easily get in Cuba (baby stroller, camera, shoes). Everyone with something to trade participates in this black market swap meet. This skin-color thing is also just a weird hang-up I have heard about from some Cubans, especially exiles. There is this lingering belief about blood being more pure if your skin is whiter as opposed to darker. Of course, this too is an idea perpetuated by some of the old exiles in the States, but it has penetrated the Cuban tourism industry as well. I wouldn't doubt that a number of Europeans and Russians helped fuel this idea, considering that the Russian word for black person is simply "nigger." 

            Anyway, this is something to think about. If you go and stay at a resort in Cuba, you are essentially supporting this framework, and, to give some credit to the angry exiles, the bulk of your money IS going straight to the "regime." Instead of getting that pristine beach vacation at a Cuban resort, perhaps seek out the home-stays. By staying in the home of a local, more of your money is going to them. They most likely under-report their income to the government. Many paladares do this. They often are limited in the number of tables and chairs they can have in their restaurant to assure that the evils of capitalism don't corrupt the good communist within, but most owners of paladares and home-stay accommodations pay off the officials whose job it is to enforce these regulations of how many tables or beds you can have in your business to look the other way. By seeking out these local services you are doing two things, you are assuring that you are not fueling economic discrimination as well as fueling a black market economy that will enrich the lives of everyday Cubans who can't live off of rations or their salaries alone. 
For some, the only way to get an extra couple of bucks is begging around the hotel bars.

Drugs: Drug dealers appeared to be the one type of local allowed into the tourist hotels. I'm guessing they pay off the officials there to kick locals out of tourist areas. If you go to hotel bar or lobby to have a drink, there are most likely high end prostitutes and drug dealers in the crowd. It was pretty obvious in just about every hotel bar I remember in Havana. Again, why one would go all this way to simply get fucked up is beyond me, and I can't imagine what penalties or laws there are for foreigners using or possessing illegal drugs. The only reason I even bring up this topic is that the drug industry is yet another way for locals to defy the economic situation. If you don't have someone sending remittances from the USA or a legitimate job in tourism making tips, I guess drugs are an option for making lots of money. I'm guessing the dealers don't pay much mind to who buys the drugs, but I find it absurd that one go all this way to such a unique and interesting place just to partake in such complete, utter bullshit. 

No Sex? No Getting Fucked Up? No Pampering? Why Go? 

              I think most people that find this article are most likely the adventurous type not looking to get their dicks wet or spend thousands of dollars to remain isolated on a resort, but who knows... For an American to make their way to Cuba, legally or illegally, there isn't much more motivation than to use their time there as a learning experience. So many people mention the stupid old cars and "how cool it is that they still drive on the streets!" Yeah, your granddad that drove that Chevy isn't going, and once you get their you'll realize those cars barely contain any original part, inside or out. 

             What? You think they chose to keep old cars running forever because they wanted to? They did it out of necessity. Under most hoods are garden hoses and other improvised "parts."

             It's different for someone from England or Germany or Japan maybe. But for an American, a trip to Cuba is an opportunity to witness the influence of American foreign policy, good or bad depending on who you talk to, in action. If you aren't a people person, maybe it's not for you. Talk to the locals. Many are interested in American affairs they learn about. I must have been asked about Obama a thousand times... always with enthusiasm too. Most Cubans understand our race relations better than many Americans do. Use the Cuban surveillance system to your advantage. In other words, there is no reason to fear violence or robbery in Cuban cities. If someone wants to invite you into their home, follow along and see what a real Cuban home is like. One guy gave me a few school books for elementary students, and the propaganda on ever page is fascinating. As a gesture of appreciation, I gave him the CUC 15 I had in my pocket. I'm sure he knew what he was doing when he asked my job and offered to "give me some old books." If you see someone doing something interesting, ask them what they are doing. Ask them about their memories of the Revolution. Ask a lady on the street about her job or her feelings about an international news topic. 
 There is something to be said about reusing Bic Lighters and Cuban ingenuity in general. This fellow figured out a small business by using insect spray as lighter fluid. Disposable lighters become refillable. 

    Palm frond broom. Sure, you can say that this is an emblem of poverty due to the "regime." You can also rethink how resourceful you are. Thinking like a Cuban, in Cuba, might help you rethink your spending, which might leave you with more money for traveling.       
Cuban skateboarders. Or, as they call them, "rafts." 

Ultimately, I'm tired of working on and editing this post. I'll wrap up by saying, don't let some passionate schmuck stop you from going and seeing the real Cuba. A Cuba revealed by endless walking, people watching and friendly conversation. You'll see that not everyone yearns to build a raft and float across the "cemetery without crosses" as Castro calls it. You run a handful of risks going there as an American, but if you can go and want to badly enough, then fuckin' A get going. I think the tourism industry has taken the "see how other people live" part out of many vacations. Cuba is one of the best places to do just that.