Cuba 2013

Calgary to YYZ red eye flight FULL.

In YYZ tail 807 watched maintenance guy add oil, check tire pressures.  Plane had been sitting for quite a while already.

Annoying chick reading her texts out loud down the row of seats in the terminal. This happens every trip. I wonder if they realize how silly they sound, as it was some insulting texts from a guy...she was reading his replies back to her young friend in real time as he was sending replies back to her texts...wow...

YYZ Gate 27 is on our boarding pass but that flight is going to Liberia, the flight to Varadero is B26. Guess what, tail 807… :)

Flight FULL. You could feel it on the take off too, the acceleration was slower than normal, I saw 190 mph on the TV  just as we rotated…

Get to Varadero, first thing I saw was the security women…couple were very tall leggy younger women wearing full diamond pattern stockings with short olive drab skirts, matching military tops and guns….all right, Cuba is gonna be good!!  Was going to take picture but figured not a good idea…LOL Then they took MY picture and handed me back half my visitors card. Picked up our bags, watched as security let their dog run rampant over the bags, somebody was in trouble because one bag he sniffed and started pawing at it and standing on it and barking a bit, we left as the security was approaching. Taxi ride (provided by resort) to motel was crazy, buddy did not speak english except for "beautiful", "bags" and "Policia!" while doing 100-120 in 80 zone on bouncy roads in a Peugeot with no rear shocks, hit the binders several times as he saw the cops on the side of the road.... They all waved at each other, he flashed a big smile, rolled his eyes and said "Policia!" as he sped back up. Got to hotel, lucky bugger got a great tip because all we had was cash, 5.00 is huge. Not much to see on drive in, some construction, some very run down looking cement buildings, palm trees, shrubs, very, very flat.

Room 1811, third floor.  Bags driven there on golf cart, it was not made up when we opened door, one bellboy started making phone calls (Spanish sounds so urgent) and we agreed with the other one we would not swap out, they can clean it as we wanted to explore anyway.... they left, we tried keys, one did not work. So we got new key at the front desk. Then we went back and door would not open with either even though key light was green!!! We are on the third floor, in the middle of a triangle shaped area full of rooms...Dawn found a maid who yelled at another maid and pretty soon they were 6 or 7 yelling at each other across the balconies in Spanish from every angle and floor…it was quite noisy!  She came over and unlocked door, it was a partly engaging manual lock when the door was closed, as the screws were falling out of the attach plate. Obviously has happened before as she knew exactly what to do. She showed me how to make sure it was all the way out when we closed the door (thanks). Then SHE got excited because the room wasn't made up yet so she started making phone calls and wanted to swap it out but I was saying "No, no its all good"….we said thanks and as she left in a cute voice: "Bye Bye"…

Don't forget all this through broken english as we don't speak spanish.

All the electrical outlets were 220 of course, and on recessed plug ins…not sure why….so you had to use a spacer adaptor so you could plug in your 220/110 adaptor. Light switches it appeared every switch could run any light as long as you got the correct sequence…LOL Big honking things too. Ceiling fan had two speeds, off and wind tunnel.

Dawn fried her flat iron in the 220/110 adaptor. Good start.

Room was nice enough, Lots of tile and nice sitting area, overlooked the garden from balcony (the sea ones cost more money). It looked pretty old though, vents falling out, washroom door was missing handle on inside (washroom did have phone in it for those who like to make important business decisions while sitting on toilet). Toilet had square seat. WTF? Bathtub/shower was huge. I noticed right away American made (embargo??) alarm clock with iPod charging adaptor on top. It said 6am even though it was 3pm and I couldn't figure out how to adjust it despite instructions back (figured it was missing batteries so perhaps that was why procedure didn't work). Opened the drawers on the dresser and the handle came off in my hand…

First day simply sat on the beach. I decided to stay in the shade. The sunburn from our Nassau trip made an impression!! Beach was very nice. Water is cold, but good once you get in for a bit. The ocean is very nice, bigger rougher waves but not bad. Breezy. Temps low 20's. Lots of chairs and little "huts" to sit under. Of course alcohol everywhere, and of course the Canadians bring thermos to fill up with drinks….LOL We stick to glasses. We also stuck to the very end of the row of huts, much quieter there.

Buffet supper, this was our first real surprise. We have heard nothing but how bland the food was, and how little choice there as in Cuba. We even brought our own salt and pepper. Well I don't know where those people stayed, but the food was amazing! You name it,it was there; roast beef (Alberta beef no less!LOL), steaks, roast pork, roast chicken, french fries, scalloped potatoes, all kinds of salads and vegetables, small onions, beans, weird stuff (???) local pineapple and various other fruit, pastas made to order while you wait, seafood and various fish dishes and sides, pizza, and all kinds of desserts. It was fantastic. The service was awesome too, our host was very nice, answered all the questions and was super fast with drinks and taking away dishes. Good thing they did because a person could eat until they fell over!!

The local pineapple is awesome. Color is pale compared to others, but very sweet and strong flavour, much stronger than  Hawiian pineapple. Papua is good, banana is good, oranges have great flavour but skin tough and thick too.

I thought the "American" named salad dressing was ironic.

Back at our room we noticed drinks left on the desk attracted those tiny Caribbean ants we first saw in St Vincent. Mental note: water only for nightstand.

Fell asleep at 9pm exhausted.

Damn birds start squawking at 6am. You'd think I'd be used to that by now.

Next day spent all day on the beach again, wandered around a little bit. Some of the ladies decided to go topless for suntanning. I'm ok with that :) Lots of sea shells on the beach, various other critters too, sea sponge, etc.

We wanted to check internet to make sure our tour was still on for next day. 6 Pesos for 30 minutes, sounds great but HOLY F**K is it slow…like 28.8 K slow when it runs right…..took most of the 30 minutes just to check e-mail! And of course it uses Internet Exploder which crashed constantly, all this on old Dell (Embargo??) computers. We decided that was the last time we would use the net, no point growing old waiting for pages to load.

Had supper at the buffet again. It was, once again, awesome. We tipped our waiter 1 peso. This seemed to be a big deal.

Next morning for breakfast had an Omelet, the chief was fantastic, did 5 omelets and three different egg orders at once out of a whole row of ingredients…made a great show of it, went down the line real fast "You? and you? and You? And you? And you?…" and you told him once and he got them all mixed and cooking perfectly, eggs flying everywhere and you could barely watch it was all so fast while those 5 were cooking, he would get the orders from the next 4 or 5 people and start serving the first 5 that are now cooked…AND carry on conversations with everyone too at the ame time...amazing……could watch that guy all day, very entertaining.  

And then our personal tour into Havana with Cuban Connection….wasn't hard to spot our guide as they rolled up in the 55 chevy we requested right on time, we weren't expecting TWO guys, but our guide hires a driver, who just happened to look like a mafia hitman (in fact, he looks IDENTICAL to the hitman in the Steve McQueen movie Bullit who was in the car chase scene with the shotgun)….just for a moment I thought maybe we were going to get taken out to a field somewhere and robbed of our 100 pesos…LOL I was also wondering if we would make it, the thing sounded like it had no oil at idle…introductions, I got in front with "The driver" and Dawn in back with Raul our tour guide. Turns out the 55 sounds like it does because it has a Mercedes 5 cyl diesel engine/auto. Gasoline =1.75 a litre, diesel =1.25 a litre and price never changes so most cars have converted to diesel. They used to use old Russian truck and tractor diesels, but now import newer stuff from Europe as old stuff is worn out and broken. These things have been daily driven for 50 years don't forget.

What it DIDN'T have was seatbelts…and there we are going down the highway at 100km/hr with cops, bicycles, big trucks, old cars, policia, horses and cows everywhere. It was a bit insane. The car was fantastic though, thick plastic seat overs on the original seats, interior still original (a bit rough in the trim area), original clock in the dash still worked, overall a 20 foot car but it was very happy at 100-120km/hr, just hummed along. It had air but we left the windows down instead, mid 20's. Everyone flashes headlights to warn of Policia like we used to do here. They signal for turns too like we used to do here.

Havana is the real Cuba, 2.6 million people plus tourists, some areas are being restored, others are rundown to the point of squalor. Our tour guide Raul was excellent, takes you were you want to go, fantastic knowledge of local history. Also happens to have a degree in power engineering, makes more money doing tourism. He gave a us the real rundown on Cuba, pretty interesting. Basically everyone makes the same wage 25p a month (he didn't specify convertible peso or local and I should have asked, one convertible peso is worth 25 local pesos), doesn't matter if you are a doctor or run a farm, that is your wage. With the collapse of Russia though, the Cuban government started letting some people privatize so you could run your own business or specialize and make more money, but you pay “huge” taxes (same as I pay here in Canada on a paycheck!).  Tourism pays huge because let’s face it 20.00 here don't mean much, but 20.00 in Cuba is a lot of cash (1 convertible peso = 1.06 Can dollar even though it really doesn't matter as Cuba is a closed system)….everyone makes lots of money on tips, which they are supposed to declare but most probably don't (not all of it anyway).

Why don't I get tips for maintaining and delivering a safe aircraft? I could use a few extra pesos….

In the Museum of the History of the Revolution (what used to be the presidential palace), the mens toilets didn't flush they just slowly level off...in the women's a man went in in with a bucket of water to flush the toilet for you once you came out. Infrastructure leaves something to be desired. Raul seemed somewhat embarrassed by all this but thats the way it is. Some amazing artifacts though, and learned a lot. It was a classic case of the rebels (Fidel and friends) gaining public support over the "democratic" government (who were hugely corrupt) simply by how bad they were treated. They had shirts in the museum some men were wearing when they were executed. It was fairly dramatic. Weapons, radios, Fidels glasses, wallet, things like that.

The Museum itself was amazing, marble everything including handrails and once again the craftsmanship is incredible....currently under restoration so we were happy we could visit.

Didn't get bothered much except one guy trying to selling black market cigars (I thought he was mad because I took some pictures just before he walked up) and a young boy who wanted my Canada pin…he was persistent until our guide gave him an earful (in Spanish of course so no idea what was said but it worked). The architecture is fantastic and the city dates back to the 1500's. Christopher Columbus was their first tourist!! LOL

There was so much history told I won't explain it all but it was fascinating. Revolution square, the Jose Marti memorial, Hemmingway's favorite bar, etc. At another memorial they had one of the Sea Furies (one of  my favorite aircraft) that fought in the Bay of Pigs invasion, also an engine from the U2 spy plane that was shot down. Parts of a "B26" that were also shot down at the same time (interesting since the US didn't acknowledge involvement in the attack the airmen’s bodies were never returned until 1979 when the US admitted to it all, at which point the remains were flown home to the USA). After being jailed and fleeing to Mexico, Fidel and friends came back to Cuba on a boat named Granma, that boat is now completely sealed in a glass building to protect it. Very important piece of history. he took over, the CIA tried to oust him, on and on it goes...The war went on for 6 years. Up here Fidel is a dictator, down there he saved the people, they really do love him as a hero. The whole palace/museum was done in marble, it was crazy. The detail and design was fantastiic. True craftsmanship. We used to have that here too.

Don't really need an old car museum, the streets are full of old American cars…mostly 50's stuff but some 40, 30's and even 20's were seen. It’s crazy to go down the highway and see all the oncoming 50's stuff. Most are average, some beat pretty bad, some are really nice. Must be expensive to build a nice one, our 55 for the trip was worth 40,000 if you wanted to purchase it and it was average. More and more newer Euro cars are starting to show up, motorcyles, etc. No emissions controls of course, and you can tell...in the city it gets pretty thick (and reminds me of article that the air in Los Angles was way worse in the 50's and 60's than today). About 1 in 10 people own a car in Cuba I was told.

Every street looked like a car show but it is just people going about their business.

We bought Raul lunch at a decent restaurant in middle of old Havana. He ordered shredded beef and got shredded beef. Dawn ordered pork and got pork. I ordered grilled chicken and got fish!! LOL Food was excellent though. Salad, soup, main course, dessert (Cuban ice cream is fantastic), drinks. There was quite the exchange of spanish over my incorrect order but I was fine with the fish, and it was very, very good (Marlin). Glad they made the mistake actually.

After lunch checked out a few more places, everywhere you went fantastic design, details, and color. Makes Canada seem pretty boring. Also incredible poverty and decrepity. In old Havana itself, vehicles are banned and the area is marked off with old cannons buried upright in the streets and replica cannonballs as well. I got approached by a lady who wanted her picture taken with me, it was funny because Raul was saying "it's ok she is legal"…LOL...he meant legal to bug tourists as she had a tag but of course we were thinking other thoughts and laughed like crazy…and somehow the other lady got into the picture too!!

Dawn later got caught by some guys who were singing and trying to sell trinkets etc, good to keep the pace up they can't block you in...LOL

Their capital building is another HUGE building full of marble and style, but it was under reconstruction so we could not go inside.

I laughed at the statue made of "the most famous guy who did nothing"…basically a frenchman who came over in 1899, got in trouble, spent some time in jail, got out, lost his mind, was homeless and drunk, wandered around but always carried and gave away pens and newspapers. He would never accept money, just food, pens and newspapers (apparently)…LOL I know a few guys who could have statues made….

Christopher Columbus was Cubas first tourist :)

Lots of construction going on as restoration and repairs happening. No signs, makeshift walkways over trenches, piles of bricks, dirt, suppplies etc. Canadian health and safety guys would have a heart attack here but the Cubans seem to have more common sense than most and take it all in stride. Impression is a busy happening place. Can't get over all the styles and colors of everything. Fantastic.

Lots of old cars in the streets with guys just hanging out. Reminds me of my teenage years where people would cruise or park and just hang out, check out other cars and just have a good time. Thing is, in Cuba that is a normal part of life not something young people (used to) do, cars are a big thing and they have kept them running for 50+ years with hardly any spare parts. I mean they make bearings, floorpans to fix rust out of shipping containers, weld without protection, modify anything and everything to make it all work. Its crazy. Owning a nice car is status is appears, and if you can make your car nice enough you can get a licence to taxi tourists around and make some "big" money. It's all relative.

They call their mechanics "magicians" and have great respect for them. A few found out I fix jets for a living, they thought I was a god!LOL But its good to see people have some repsect for the trades unlike home were where tradesmen are generally looked down upon yet who does everyone call when something doesn't work and how far would our society get without them?

For a car guy like myself, this place is heaven.

Havana tunnel was cool, 40 feet under seabed connects old Havana with modern Havana and made a long way round trip of an hour to less than a few minutes, built in 1957/58.

Credit cards are useless. 10% extra charge just to use them IF the place has a reader which most do not. Nobody uses credit cards here. Everything in cash, bank won't give loans.... Old cars 40,000 cash, housing 150,000 cash no mortgages.

If you kill your own cow to have steaks for supper, it's 30 YEARS in jail. They do like their cows!

If you fight in public in a tourist area its straight to jail, minimum two weeks, maximum unknown....

Three traffic tickets lose license for 6 months. Low, medium, high speeding tickets, police decide on the spot and they just guess anyway, no photo radar. If you don't pay your fine within two months straight to jail. This annoys people like our guide who called the police system "uneducated". Makes sense because you know the rules will get abused, just as it happens here too.

Education is free. Healthcare is free. If you need a job you go to city hall and ask and they will put you to work. When we were approached for money, our guide spoke to him in Spanish and he took off. Raul said "No need for that, always jobs for anyone who will work".

Most Cubans don't travel anywhere. It’s very expensive, and Cuba worries people will not come back. Our guide knows a person up here in Calgary and is trying to come visit and learn more for his engineering degree. He says the Canadian Embassy and Cuba have to issue a visa to visit, he has to prove his friendship with the other person, prove his friends, financial situation, etc... less than 1% of people who ever apply get the visa. Most travel is to South America.

Several places we were at visitors pay with convertible peso, locals pay with old peso so locals get a deal for sure (ie, 1/25th the price)...or more honestly tourists get hosed…LOL

Back to the cars where we found the drivers washing each others machines, then the 1+ hour drive back to our resort. Highlight of that was when our driver noticed the lipstick on my face and laughed "Tim been busy!" from the back seat. Thanks Raul...LOL Much laughter...

Got back about 6:30 pm. 375km in the 55. It was a long day, had supper and crashed about 9 pm again...sure sleep good in the Caribbean.

Thursday laid on the beach all day again. Russians are loud, Canadians are drunk, Brits are obnoxious, boobies are awesome!

In the afternoon we caught a taxi to downtown Varadero, basically a tourist trap. On the way back we caught a double decker bus with an open top. That was great, wallowing and bouncing along until we headed into the seaside breeze, that plus the speed of the bus will rip your hair out by the roots, people trying to hang onto their hats and hair and I was getting bitch slapped on the face by the collars on my dress shirt flapping so had to button it right up in the 30 degree heat….and we toured around for a bit like that, stayed on the bus up one side of the tourist area and then back down the other…when you get to the end of the bus line they stop, drivers get off and guys show up to sell you pina colada's in a pineapple…5.00 but now you are trapped so why not. It’s so funny because we were watching the locals from the top of the bus and they were all looking up at us probably thinking we're idiots because who would ride up top in the hurricane on that POS!!!! I'm pretty sure we were on the slow bus. At one point our driver even went around a traffic circle twice as well.…WTF??

Old couple on the bus was having a great time naming the old cars from their youth as they drove past.

Again the cars are crazy, little shops everywhere, people are friendly and happy. They will also charge you a peso to take a pee.

Last day up at 7am, checked out at noon as they couldn't give me late checkout (as hoped ) but flight didn't leave until after midnight. Left a bunch of stuff for the maid as she was awesome. We had left a peso every morning for her and the day previous she left a nice note thanking us, room very clean and well stocked. Spent 5 hours on the beach, last swim, had buffet supper…walk in and waiter is waving and smiling and hustles us over to a nice quiet table, brought drinks and knew what we wanted (a peso here or there will up your service level 100 times apparently) Once again, great food. Ate too many desserts though..

To hold your bags until you leave into you put them in an unlocked room (supposedly watched). Then to change there are rooms with showers but no towels so luckily the towel exchange had been closed when we got off the beach so we still had those. No locks on the doors, no toilet paper, floor wet, etc. We opened our bags to grab some stuff and other people were on there too going through their stuff (maybe others?). Not very good for a high end place. No guards either, we went back once or twice, nobody there. So when asked at the airport if you left your bags unattended, you can say: "Yes, for 12 hours at the hotel"!!

Talked to a bellboy named @@@@@ about all kinds of stuff, his kids, power/ food in small places after hurricane, etc. He has a university degree in telecommunications, but has worked at the motel for 10 years as a bellboy. Better money.  He builds computers on the side, talked about they import stuff in the black market, he buys internet access for special price off a lady who gets it for her business, he went into the details about how it all looks legit but she is making money and he is saving it…LOL It was funny how honest and open he was, very good english too. We asked about the rainy season, he said used to be May/June, now it never rains until July/August. Left his name out for his protection, it is a communist country and I don't want to get anyone in trouble.

Naturally 15 minutes later it rained.

Since we had no room now, Dawn used a different toilet in the hotel lobby area, had different flush handle which needed lid to be down, she did that and hit the button and water shot out the back of the toilet onto the wall!  Welcome to Cuba! She left without seeing the final results…LOL

Got our bags, asked front desk about ride, flight late, supposed to depart 12:55, now 2:45....bus here at 12:00, so we took bags back to bag room, had more drinks, listened to concert, played some pool, table had 3 #14s, 2 #2s, 2 #11s no cue ball or # 8 ( one #14 was partly painted black so called that the 8 ball). High end resort, remember. Other table only had 8 balls...

Came back to get out bags, saw @@@@@ again; "hey Rainman!"… he laughed, more chatting. People are super friendly here. He was telling us about loading drunks out of the bar into taxi to catch their flight "once off property, not our problem…"..Big laughs…LOL...funny guy….he has nice family. I've seen more pictures of peoples kids on this trip than I have with most of my friends!

While waiting for more info at front desk about our flights (they were very busy), older gentleman was waiting at desk with one bag…he said  to me "My lady is outside with our bags and nobody cares, could you watch this bag for me?" I said sure...as he walked away I asked after him if he needed a hand but he didn't hear me so I followed him out, ended up carrying in some suitcases for him…she was about 30, he was about 60…but again high end resort and he must have been an important guy as later on we saw him getting a personal tour of the hotel. I should have asked for a tip…..

Taxi to airport was fast. Guy kept switching between high and low beams and fog lights for most of the trip…not sure what he was doing as it was perfectly clear.. Click click click click click click click click click CLICK!!!

25.00 to leave Country (hey its less than leaving YYC), customs took picture again, collected other half of my visitors visa (must be their tracking system), through in no time. Not supposed to take Cuban currency home, after I ran my stuff through the x-ray machine I was putting it back in my pockets and a couple pesos fell out into the tray. They didn't seem to care. Dawn exchanged a 10 peso note and got less than 6.00 Canadian back so don't do exchanges at the airport!!…and of course that 10.00 peso cost us 11.00 Canadian at the hotel...LOL

Flight out at 3:40 am....

Airport terminal washroom took a pee, tried to wash hands holding faucet top down with one hand to keep the water running, dry hands turn around and there is the maid sitting in the corner with her hand out for a tip...WTF

Plane loaded and ready to go. Somebody took ill and could not fly so was removed from aircraft. They had to pull her bags too and that took a long time, we didn't push until 5 am. Tried to get some sleep on the way to London, guy behind me kept banging the seat so not a chance. Tail 237, 16A window shade was torn and recline wouldn't work properly (imagine my surprise but hey better than one of our guests getting the seat).

Got to London about 8am (have now been up 25 hours), ran quickly through customs, get new boarding passes then back through security and back onto same aircraft (237).

London to Calgary flight was FULL. Walked down the bridge there was a maintenance guy standing there blabbing to the CSA, you could tell she was not interested and he was discussing why the aircraft was so late. The previous crew had already told the PAX on our flight why, yet he was adding to the story right in front of guests.  Why must we always make asses of ourselves??

In Cuba our seats were not booked right through properly so Dawn and I each ended up in the middle of a row. I got two women in my row, one a 40ish chatty blond in the window seat who was in Cuba 5 years ago and had the exact opposite experience of us (never going back, hated it, food was terrible, no amenities, camera stolen, etc). It was kind of odd, she came on the plane, looked at me and made a beeline right for her seat beside me, sat down and started talking. Dawn asked later if I knew her. I did not. In the isle seat got a mid 40ish nutcase who kept bumping into me, flipping through the seatpocket, jumping in her seat…all while I'm trying to sleep…good thing I was an employee or I might have hit her back, just once but real hard!! I'll bet she bumped me over 50 times on that flight.  One time when she bumped my arm pretty hard I looked at her with an annoyed look and she said "Do you have the time?". I said No. LOL My seat (7B) the headrest would not stay up, and Live TV gave us all issues. I hope it's just me.

Got home about 11:30 local, now up over 30 hours, had a few hours sleep, ordered pizza, went over pics and realized I didn't take any of the beach…LOL Oh well, look in a brochure I guess.

Funny too, first thing I saw on TV was about the cement for the the new overpass having to be repaired as it had issues. maybe they should talk to the Cubans, their cement church has lasted over 500 years now....

Turns out Dawns flat iron is ok, it was the adaptor that fried.

It was a great trip but so much of the stuff you had to be in the moment. Raul was a fantastic guide, funny, smart and just a great guy. His english is very good so that is helpful too. The language barrier with others made some situations completely comical. For a high end expensive resort the Sandals infrastructure left something to be desired (this is a third world country though), but the people were super friendly and helpful, room was clean, the food was great, the beach was great and of course the weather was awesome as well. We will go back. Leave the salt and pepper at home but maybe take a pool ball set.

Spent 43.00 on souvenirs (a litre of Rum cost 5.20p - about 5.40 Canadian) including a small wooden Buick. Somehow I lost 4 pounds even though I ate like a pig. Go figure.

Tim

 

 

 

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