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. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Americans Going to Cuba: Part One... The Risks? The Costs?

Todo por la Revolucion, Pendejo! 

If you made it here, you've most likely already read a number of other bloggers telling you the secret ways on getting to Cuba... as an American. I'm sure you found the guy who "does it all the time in protest of the embargo" and the other guy who goes with his church or as a journalist. And then there are Cubans going to visit family and Obama's remittances and on and on...

It seems there is always that American traveler who intrigues the other American travel enthusiasts when they can claim Cuba as a "been there, done that." It's dickish. It's so cavalier. I mean, how do most Americans get there? Most of them do not, and the rest fly to the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands or some country in Central America and then pay cash for a flight on a smaller regional airline to Havana. There is the assurance from folks who have been that the Cubans don't stamp your passport because they know you're American... That's not how it works really...

So many stories.

Well, I'm not the guy who snuck in. I went legitimately with work. Myself along with a few others. So if you can go legitimately, you probably already know how. Let me discuss the risks and the costs. I'll explore the ethics of this ordeal in the next post...


Economic: In the past, there were fines of more than $10,000 and jail time. I remember working on a research paper about Cuban travel and finding an article about one guy that the government decided to make an example of while roughly 70,000 Americans were sneaking into Cuba each year. But word on the street is that the folks paid to enforce one's breaching of the embargo laws (note: Americans can be in Cuba. They just can't spend any money there) have been given other tasks. Back in 2006 I dated a girl whose mother's boyfriend worked at MIA and acquired a number of confiscated Cuban cigars and rum for his personal use from these airport personnel who took them from the little abuelitas coming off of the airplane. A dick move if you ask me, confiscating contraband just to sell and trade it amongst your fellow airport employees. But that's another discussion. Shame on you, George! Anyway, now there are a number of exceptions made by the Obama administration allowing Cuba travel agents to arrange group travel to Cuba so long as they carry a detailed itinerary.

To see some of the possibilities that allow Americans to legally travel, this is the company we used that arranged a no-hassle trip. Our flight went from Miami to Havana in about an hour or so. They essentially rent a plane from American Airlines and rent pilots and take the passengers and about 300 blue eggs full of Wal-Mart, K-mart, and Target goods destined for family members that can't get something as basic as a socket wrench due to the embargo and their depressing socialist salary.

Passport Stamp: I remember meeting this English guy, I think in Mexico or Australia... can't remember, but I do remember his enthusiasm for Cuba and how much he loved it. "I mean, you've got a communist country, and in my passport they post 'Hasta a la Victoria' with a picture of Che on it," he said. Yeah, they don't. If you are American, they just pull a perforated visa paper in half and you keep one part until you leave. Don't lose it.

One thing I always wondered was if you would be questioned by Immigration the United States if you flew into Cuba from a foreign country like Mexico. Your passport will have a stamp marking the exit from the US, the arrival and exit out of Mexico, and then you return to the US. So what would they say if they saw you left the US, then went to Mexico, left then returned to Mexico and went back to the states? I always wondered to what extent our names ping on a satellite when our passports go certain places...  Someone who reads this and did this tell me...

I'll say this much, one of my colleagues had a contact in the FBI that she hadn't talked to for some time, and then he showed up at her house out of the blue and asked why she was going to Cuba. Remember, we went legitimately, but our names on the flight manifest pinged on a computer screen somewhere. The agent said he was just eager for a report of what it was like.... hmm....

Costs: You'll need to carry more than an itinerary when there as an American. Regardless of how you get into the country, expect to pay way, way more than you imagined. If I were to go again, I would have a budget of $300 a day. One might not spend close to that, but if you get into trouble or need to fly home early or lose some of your money, you need enough to get by until you get out. For a nine day trip, I brought $800 in spending money. My job covered our hotels and travel etc. But be aware that using American money comes with an automatic tax.

The exchange rate was:     $1 = .92 CUC

The value of the Cuban convertible peso was .92 but all cash exchanges took an additional 10% from customers exchanging American money.

So really: $1= .82 CUC

Why? Consider it an extra charge for our embargo. Europeans exchanging Euros pay an exchange fee as does anyone changing currency, but exchanging the dollar requires one pay ten cents more per dollar. It doesn't help, as far as I can tell, to convert your money to another currency and then convert it to CUC.

And since the embargo is a treasury law that all American banks or American customers of banks must follow, no ATM or credit card will work if registered to an American. If you are going there, it's cash only. Luckily, Cuba is safe--even for Americans. I remember walking through Havana drunk at 3 am and there being a police presence there--both to help if needed and make sure we didn't talk to the locals for too long.

Be aware that if you are guided by a local or seen hanging out with locals for a decent amount of time, there is a chance those locals will be questioned about what you spoke about. The police will not mess with you, but if you get that local to discuss politics openly or misbehave or do something illegal with them there is a good chance that they will pay for your actions after you go home.

So the only risk I can really point out that makes many people hesitate is the cash only bit. I advised two friends on how they might get into Cuba from the Bahamas who decided once they reached Nassau that the Bahamas were close enough since they knew no Spanish and only had around $1000 for four days.

Dining: So why do I say bring $300 for each day you will be there? Well, at an exchange of $0.82, you now have $240 CUC. Of course, you can eat meals with the locals if you like bread made of what tastes like sawdust and meat filled with TVP and vegetable protein fillers. I mean, Cuba has closely studied the ways of adulterated food much like our fast food industry in the states. How else would you stretch an island's worth of food amongst 11,270,000 with an embargo and only so many resources to generate an economy? More than likely you'll find the little restaurants or, paladares, in each town that cook food for tourists. Here are a few things to expect:

1. The amazing Cuban food you find in the States or at your grandmother's house does not exist in Cuba. What you eat in America is an example of Cuban made with the best, proper ingredients. What you will find in Cuba is what is available and what is close enough. There might be no black bean crop or plantains in season when you get there. The lobster every idiot comes home to rave about is frozen not fresh. The vinegar for your salad is white vinegar or the pepper on the table is white pepper. The oxtail tastes like butthole--no surprise there. Maybe your mojito is nothing like you expected, and sadly you might discover TGI Friday's mojito is more to your liking. You'll hate to admit it, but it might be.

2. For the best food you can find in Cuba, you'll be going to paladares. Expect to pay around $30 for a plate of food and a drink. Don't get me wrong, I loved every minute of it. But Cuba was more of a learning experience of myth and reality than it was some cheap, sneaky travel paradise. If you paid $30 for any of these meals in the states, you'd write a nasty yelp review about it. But in Cuba, you'll spend that $30 bucks with a bit of sympathy and be like, "Oh, it was... interesting.... very nice... I'm in Cuba..."

Paladare cuisine--the best food you'll find, with little surprises throughout.

Street vendor, Havana. Waltzing around drunk at night I told him, "Yo soy hermano de pizza!"

3. You are going to get diarrhea. There is no way to avoid eating in a Cuba and not shitting your brains out. Hopefully, your hotel has toilet paper. Bring a roll with you anyways, and keep some in your day bag, as I one day had to shit and wipe my ass with dollar bills out of my wallet.
If you have diarrhea and go out in Cuba, good luck finding a bathroom with a seat or toilet paper. My solution was the beach. I swam out about a hundred feet, pull my shorts down, sank to the bottom and shot out a brown cloud of nasty. I came up for air--repeat. By the time I was done, I could open my eyes underwater and see four brown cloudy swarms of poo water drifting away from me, one larger than the one before it as they diluted into mother ocean. Thanks Fidel... 

Hotels: If you get an official license to visit Cuba, you might be able to book a hotel in advance. To stay at the famous mobster hotels like the Inglaterra in Havana, you'll be paying insanely high rates $200+ for a room that would score quite low on any hotel review site. The positives to a room in the Inglaterra would be a flushing toilet, toilet paper, and a somewhat clean shower. The mattresses might feel like they were salvaged from a camper van in 1979, and the televisions run state channels and some cable channels deemed "okay" by the regime. I did like the notes left for me by the maids expecting tips for cleaning my room each day. On the other hand, towns like Trinidad had European corporate chain hotels like Iberostar that were amazing, and again they cost hundreds a night. Remember, I wasn't paying. Since European companies don't deal with the embargo they've had a few opportunities to set up some swank accommodations. One problem, however, is that they wouldn't let our local Cuban guides hang out with us in our rooms. We had to hang out with our local friends in view of hotel staff in the lobby. Not sure why other than perhaps the control of interaction with foreigners. Most people venturing into Cuba that I talk to stay in a room of a local home offered by the local families in each town, which usually comes with breakfast. Most of my European friends that have been to Cuba found a home stay situation once they arrived on the plane, and I can't imagine there being a high season where accommodations would be impossible to find.

Internet: Aside from running at a 56k speed, none of my e-mails made it home after I sent my first one saying that "Cuba looks very communist and drab." After that, my girlfriend and mother didn't hear from me for nine more days. It's also very expensive.

Mail: One can mail postcards home to America, so long as you don't say anything crazy. How do I know? Well, four out of five postcards made it home. One criticized the coffee of Cuba saying how it was watered down with chicory and nothing like "Cuban coffee" in Miami, and other postcards had the usual "having fun" sort of thing. But one postcard I sent to my friend David really tested the censors and never made it. I bought a postcard of a young Fidel Castro, just a close up of his face while ranting at the microphone. I tore a hole away where his mouth was, and on the back of the card I wrote, "Hoyo de Gloria" or "Glory hole." I then wrote, "David, our mission to install hoyas de gloria was a success. Long live Fidel and Raul." What can I say, my friend David and I think that the concept of a glory hole is funny, and the censors, while I doubt know what a glory hole is, snagged the card in fear that I somehow disrespected the "old ghost" as the Cubans call Fidel.

Sex Trade? Drugs? Supporting the Regime? Of course, I don't condone any of these... I'll discuss in Part Two....