Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Los Angeles for 36 Hours

A couple of months ago Southwest Airlines had a $29 sale and I spent a couple hours determined to buy a ticket. I did not care where I went or what I did. I love flying. I love airports. And $29 is a great deal. 

That sale brought me to LAX for 36 hours. 

I packed no clothes just my Dopp kit. I did a bunch of touristy things, at a slow-pace, using public transit. The transit system in LA is amazing!

From LAX I took the bus to Venice Beach. At the bus stop I met Alex who gave me his number and told me to call him later “for a good time and some weed”. I did not call Alex. 

After walking the beach I jumped on another bus and made my way to Santa Monica pier. 

I decided to do a Hop-on-Hop off tour after talking to a friend that does them in every big city. I used it to make my way to Hollywood. It was ok. The narration was about famous people and since I know nothing about that topic it was a bit boring. It could have been because of the city I was in but I will probably stick to historical walking tours. 

I stayed in a Hostel in Hollywood ($32/night) across from the Chinese Theatre and it was a great location. I walked around for a bit soaking up the sights and doing some great people watching. 

My first visit to Hollywood was thirty years earlier when I visited a friend. It was fun to recreate the pose in front of Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe’s prints that read “Gentlemen prefer blondes”. My hair color may have changed but not my friskiness”. 

After a nap I hopped on the metro and DASH bus and visited the Griffith Observatory. I had never been but the views at sunset were spectacular! 

I grabbed some dinner and visited with a young woman from Brazil. I love meeting young adventurers. 

The next morning I grabbed breakfast and walked around the city for a bit more exploring. 

It was a nice 36 hours. Relaxing. Fun. Cheap. Everything I love in my travels. 

Total page views: 255,578

I hope you find a great travel deal that makes you happy! 

Rae Ann

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Cuba: Final Post

This will be my final Cuba post. Wow, what a trip. It exceeded my expectations. I admit it was overwhelming before I departed but now that I am on American soil I realize it was fairly easy. 

A few tips for my friends asking: 
  • Tourist Card. You will need one before departing on your flight to Cuba. I flew American and got mine at the gate. $100. Credit card only. 
  • D-Viajeros Form. You will need to get one 72 hours before you depart. It is easy. Google it.
  • Health Insurance. You will need it and it will most likely be included in your flight ticket. 
  • Money. American credit cards will not work. You need to bring plenty of cash to get through your trip. Exchange with locals for a better rate. 
  • Tour vs On Your Own. I went with a tour group and that was helpful to reduce the stress of not working with a government business (which is illegal). But you could easily use Airbnb as those are not government. 
  • Airbnb Experiences. Cubans want USD and work hard to give you a good experience. Book them. 
  • Phone. Verizon and AT&T will charge a ridiculous daily rate. Turn off your cellular connection. WiFi is not reliable. I got a SIM card (at the airport) and the data was great. Or don’t expect to use your phone. 
  • Reason for Travel. It is illegal for Americans to support the government so you can only go “in support of the Cuban people”. There is talk about needing an itinerary but no one asked for it during my trip. 
  • Taxis. Taxis are pretty reasonable and easy to grab. I got the number of a driver I met and contacted him for rides. 
  • WhatsApp. Everyone uses it. 
In the morning of my last day I had breakfast with the ladies at the resteraunt below our casa. Three more flights (one with a surprising upgrade to first class!) returned me to California after fifteen hours of airports and planes. 

It was such a great week! 

My Polarsteps map

  • Flights: Six (6)
  • Flight miles: 5,650
  • Miles walked: 26.25 (4.06/day)
  • Countries: Two (2) - one new which makes 28
  • Pageviews: 255,014
If you have been thinking about going to Cuba, do it!

Safe travels, my friends. 

Rae Ann

Cuba Day Five

Today we did another Airbnb experience with Alejandro. He took us to a protected region about forty minutes east of Havana. Wow. It was beautiful. 

Along the drive we saw a community Cuba built to house and treat victims of the Chernobyl disaster. Cuba has done some really great things for others. 

We arrived near a river that flowed to the sea and we had to walk across that water to get to our hiking path. Some of us were anxious about drowning, others were anxious about making sure they had their phone for photos. I’ll let you decide who was who. 

It was a fairly easy hike to where we would snorkel. It was clear and we saw lots of sea life in the reef. 

After our return hike we walked to a home, in the country, for lunch. The food was fabulous and the hosts were so friendly. 

Our tour guide (left) was a doctor and our driver (right) was a lawyer. All Cubans make roughly the same amount of money from government jobs (pretty much all of their work because…communism) which equates to around $33 per month. They love USD since it has more value and those dollars come from tourists so many find side-gigs in the industry. 

Let’s talk about money and the Cuban peso (CUP). American credit cards do not work in Cuba so you have to bring cash. It is stressful preparing a budget when you are not sure how much things will cost. 

The CUP has very little value so Cubans want USD. You can exchange USD for CUP at the government rate of 110 ($10 = 0.09 CUP) or find someone to illegally exchange at a higher rate (from 150 to 170). CUP is accepted at government places and USD at private businesses. But how do you know which is which and how much to convert? You don’t. It is a constant game of “do I have enough money left” and “do I need to exchange more”. Thankfully we all worked together to maximize our exchange rates and make sure we didn’t leave Havana with CUP as it is useless in the US. 

When I was at the gate Paradis texted “Parker and I forgot to ask if you could get any Cuban currency but it looks like you fly out this morning!” So I “did a deal” at the airport. 

We ended the day with our tour group having dinner and going to the Buena Vista Social Club, which pays homage to the original club that was a blacks-only members-only club where Cuban music exploded. 

We returned to our casa, which had a Restaurant  below, to have pizza waiting for us thanks to the lovely Massiel who worked there. Did I say Cubans are lovely people? 

Cuba Day Four

The three of us started the day taking a taxi to Old Havana and simply walked around. The homes in Havana are run down. They struggle with getting basic materials and there lives show it. In the home below you can see how they split one floor into two. This extra weight puts stress on the building and you see many collapsed buildings because of it. 

Let’s talk a bit about the complexity of Cuba. As I do with every country I visit I learned so much. Note, everything I share below is my interpretation after speaking with many Cubans and some statements are opinions. 

First, the Cuban people are lovely and generally like Americans. However, they do not like how our government has such a huge impact on their lives. The Cubans I met believe Fidel Castro was sincere about  improving the lives of working class Cubans when leading the revolution that brought down the repressive Batista administration in 1959. Batista’s administration was horrible by benefiting from 70% of Cuban land being owned by foreigners (the majority Americans) and working with the American mafia. In other words, Americans contributed to the widening gap between the rich and poor. 

So, if Castro was so good why is Cuba struggling? 

First, Cubans do not look hungry. Essentially no one is homeless. Everyone has free health care that is accessible (unlike Canada where surgical waits are long). Ninety-five percent of Cubans graduate from high school (in America it is 85%) and everyone I met had a college degree (also free). The infant mortality is only 4/1000 whereas in the US it is 5.9/1000. Lots of good things. 

But, basic things are short in supply like toilet paper, cars (that is why you see the classic cars because they are a necessity), building materials, etc. 

In 1962 the American government proclaimed an embargo between the United States and Cuba cutting off trade except for food and medicine. Kennedy’s administration did so because of Castro’s connections with the Soviet Union. But the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the sanctions have clearly not improved the lives of Cubans, so why have the limits on trade not been removed? That is the million dollar question I will not answer here. 

In 2014 Obama lifted some of the restrictions. The Cuban people love Obama. He brought cruise ships back to the island which improved their lives greatly with tourism dollars and stimulated free business. The Cubans told me they would cheer upon the arrival of every ship. 

But Trump reversed all of that good stuff in 2017. The Cubans hate Trump (along with 58% of Americans). So what did Trump gain from hurting the Cuban people? Votes. Although I am still unclear what he got from reversing those changes, I am confident it was not to help the Cuban people. 

The United Nations condemns the American sanctions and after spending time in Cuba I agree they are a failed attempt to achieve any goals. 

You cannot visit Cuba without talking about politics because…Cuba. We all know “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”.

Back to my regularly scheduled program…

We went on an Afro-Cuban walking tour next. I have learned a ton about religion throughout my travels and cuba is a unique country in that several religions have blended together over time (natives, Spaniards, and slaves brought over by Spaniards). Racism exists in Cuba but they also have integration and the racism is nothing like in America. Also below is the yummy mojito and cerveza drink I had for lunch. 

That evening we went to a Cuban family’s home we found via an Airbnb Experience and had a Cuban dinner. Lester and his mom were so welcoming and we all got a bit buzzed off the Rumsee I brought (which I thought was more like a wine but turned out to be straight rum!). The meal was delicious and it was so nice to be welcomed into their home. 

Lina, Donna and I ended the evening at Bar Fellini listening to a band Interactivo. I love watching Latinos dance. It made me miss Henry more than usual. 

It was a jam packed day!

Cuba Day Three

When I planned this trip nearly four years ago I was sharing it with my friends and three of them decided to join me. So on my third day I connected with Lina, Lori, and Donna who flew in from Minneapolis together. I met each of them through work at different points in my life and neither of them knew one another before going on this adventure. 

We started the day with an Airbnb tour led by Jose and Louis. We started at a cigar factory and learned how they rolled each one by hand. It was fascinating to watch them and learn about the quality control. It is all very simple but hard work. Each cigar is a special blend of the same plant, making different varieties (marketing). They gather leaves for the middle, leaving a chamber for air and then out in a press for an hour or so. Then they cover with a leaf dried and then hydrated to be smooth and flexible. 

We continued the tour driving around different areas of old Havana. 

This is the Capitola. 

We had lunch at La Bodequita Del Medio where Hemingway spent much of his time drinking and making the mojito known. 

Then we joined our official tour group for a driving tour around old Havana. During a fifteen minute break from the group Lori and I ran into The Floridita where Hemingway drank and made the Daiquiri Famius. 

Lina, Lori, Donna and I. 

We ended the evening at Fábrica de Arte Cubano a “club” that had a variety of artists in different rooms. We had dinner on the rooftop, listened to classical music, browsed through fabulous works of art, and danced with a DJ. My favorite piece of art was the one below, made of keys called “The Key to Cuba”. 

It was a great day.