Author Topic: Viva La Revolución! Time-traveling to Cuba with Something Fishy, whYME, and CITH  (Read 16492 times)

Offline Dawie

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...If one of those bottles should happen to fall, what a waste of alcohol.

98 bottles of beer on the wall, 98 bottles of beer...

Online Something Fishy

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Ooh, shots fired ;D



But like I said...

Paging whYME ... The next segment is done from my part.
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Offline a mirrer

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Offline iAm

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I'm headed to Cuba at the end of this month. Any chance you can make an effort to somewhat complete this before Thanksgiving?
iThink. Ergo. iAm

Offline enwhycee

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Great thread!

Heading there in early December.

Online Something Fishy

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[whYME] Sunday, 4:00 am. After having spent Shabbos on Cape Cod I was now an hour and a half drive from the airport. I still wanted to stop at Walmart for some last minute supplies and needed to return my rental car, so it's time to hit the road.

7:15 am. After a longer-than-I-wanted stop at Walmart and returning the rental car I was finally at the Copa check-in counter. Overall it went smoothly, although I did have to wait 15 minutes while they copied my affidavit that certified that I'm going as a journalist. I should've listened to Something Fishy and brought along 3 copies, but alas when will I learn...

Now it was time to daven shacharis and I needed a quiet place to do that. I had discovered the night before that the only lounge there wouldn't be open until the afternoon... Apparently it was silly of me to think that between Amex plat, priority pass, united club, and the AA exec card I'd be able to find a lounge pretty much anywhere. Well apparently not in BOS terminal E .

Oh well, it was still rather empty at the gate area so I didn't get too many funny looks while davening.

Once onboard I finally slept a little. While Copa's business class wasn't lie-flat, it sure beat coach. After a couple of hours I woke up to a delicious breakfast of frozen-solid lox, cold couscous, and (surprisingly!) hot chicken:






Over Grand Bahama Island, Bahamas:





Approaching Panama, the ocean was full of canal traffic:



The Pacific end of the Panama Canal. The Miraflores locks are visible in the top right corner:



Panama City:





There was one bit of unfinished business: we needed to get our visas for Cuba. We knew we could get these in the PTY airport but were unsure exactly where, and if it was airside or landside (info on the internet was contradictory). Since I was scheduled to arrive far earlier than the others and had a long layover, it was my job to find the visa desk.

As soon as I landed in Panama I headed off to find the visas. Fortunately, it didn't take too long. I Found the desk (airside), handed them $20, and was given the visa. I was also told that the visas could be bought at the departure gate as well, so this would make it easy on the other guys. (In hindsight I shoulda gotten 3 then...)

By the time I made it out of the airport I had about 5 1/2 hours until I had to be back to meet up with the other guys and catch the flight to HAV, I figured I'd take a trip over to Panama Viejo and try and get some pics there.

I think it was around this time that I realized I had forgotten to stop at an ATM on the way to BOS airport to get cash for PTY. I had plenty of cash to exchange in HAV, but I had forgotten to get some for PTY.

Off to the nearest ATM, insert card, type PIN, get ca- nope, PIN not accepted. Try several more times, nothing doing. Find another ATM, still no luck.

Eventually I gave up and went to find a taxi who will take credit cards. After a few minutes I found one and we set out for Panama Viejo, just over 20 minutes away.

View from the road:




The sail-shaped building to the left is our dear president-elect's Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower, and is the YUUUUUGEST biglyest tallest building in Panama, and everybody loves it, believe me:



Many random things were painted in outrageously colored art, such as these cones around a sidewalk cafe:



This mural:



And a whole bunch of what appeared to be hot-rodded school buses being used for public transportation, which I later found out are the now-almost-extinct Diablo Rojos -Red Devils.)



After about 35 minutes and we're still driving, we arrived at... Casco Viejo. Panama Viejo, Casco Viejo, whatever - I guess it all sounds the same when a gringo says it...

Casco Viejo is the old historic district of Panama city. While it is kinda interesting there, it's kind of a very very watered down version of HAV. Kinda pointless if you're on the way to HAV but still beats sitting in the lounge for 5 hours:








Whaddya know, they actually sell Panama hats in Panama!



What be this quaint curiosity?



One more view of the city, particularly the Punta Paitilla and Punta Pacifica neighborhoods, from Casco Viejo:



One upside of going to Casco Viejo was that the Punta Paitilla neighborhood with its many kosher food options was on the way back to the airport, so I stopped by Pita Plus. I don't know if my eyes were just bigger than my stomach or I knew this would be my last real meal until I left Cuba, but I may have over-ordered a bit.

I got some very good chicken fingers:




An excellent double burger:



And of course there's the salad bar that came with it:



By now it was getting late. time to head back to the airport and meet the guys...

[Something Fishy] While whYME was cavorting around Panama, CITH and I headed to JFK together, and went straight to the Copa priority check-in lane. Right away the troubles started.

Check-in agent: What is this? You can't go to Cuba.
Me: Yes I can.
Agent: No you can't.
Me: Yes I can. Here's my journalism license.
Agent: Let's see your visa.
Me: I don't have one yet. The visa gets picked up in Panama.
Agent: No it doesn't.
Me: Yes it does.
Agent: I'm not gonna let you board.

At this point I'm boiling mad. By Fidel's scratchy old beard, no way this clueless agent on a power trip is going to deny me boarding. Trying to remain calm (outwardly, at least) I firmly but politely asked for her supervisor.

After a five minute wait, the supervisor shows up. She listens to both sides of the situation, looks at the agent as if she's retarded, and prints out all our boarding passes.

Whew!

We made it to the gate just a few minutes to spare (no time for the lounge today) and boarded. The first thing that struck me is that the plane is basically a United 737. Everything looked the same - the seats, the decor, even the Copa logo. Turns out that United had held a 49% stake in Copa till recently. In fact, it was only a month before this trip that Copa announced their own FFP, breaking off from United's Mileage Plus program.

We headed to seats 2A and B, which were basically UA domestic F seats. Not too terrible, mind you - wide enough, a fair amount of legroom, and semi-decent recline. For a 5.5 hour flight it wasn't too shabby. We got settled, get a pre-departure drink (in a glass! - Copa 1, United 0), and off we went:




Somewhere over the Caribbean, a thunderstorm forming:



Airshow - nearly there:



Why can't all airlines have this? It's so simple, yet so helpful: a list of connecting flights and their gates. First one on the list is us - Jose Marti international Airport:



Before we knew it, we landed in Panama City. We headed to the lounge, where we had made up to meet whYME, who hopefully had found the visa desk. Before long he showed up with the welcome news that we could get the visa at the departing gate. After a short stay in the lounge we were off again, and the visa duly purchased:



This is really happening:



Finally, at about 1 in the morning, we began our descent into Havana. My first impression of the airport was that it looked just as modern and normal as a regular first-world airport, but the overall mood was absolutely grim. Armed soldiers stood every few feet, silently watching.  It was clear that we were not in Kansas anymore.

Before clearing customs, we were corralled into a side area and handed forms to fill out. We had to state that we were not smuggling anything on a long list of contraband, including GPS devices (smartphones were fine), communications equipment, kitchen appliances (come again?), and – ahem – certain types of videos and magazines. There was also a space where we had to list every electronic item we are carrying. There wasn’t nearly enough room for us to list everything, so we just generically wrote “cameras and lenses” and hoped that would be fine.

Filling out this form, we got our first indication that in Cuba, no one – even the government-owned airport – has everything they need. Here we were, a couple of hundred passengers, tasked with filling out a long and tedious form on plain printer paper, in a large, square, and empty room - with not a single counter, table, or anything of the sort. It felt like this, but with none of the cool factor:




In the end everyone lined up against the wall and awkwardly did the paperwork.

Off it was to collect our bags and customs. Before the US travel changes had been implemented, Cuban customs officials knew not to stamp an American passport. Now however, there were reports that they will stamp, upon request. So when my agent stamped my visa instead of my passport, I politely asked him to stamp my passport as well. By look I received in return, you’d think I had asked him to help me smuggle a toaster oven or something horrid like that. Oh well, I definitely wasn’t going to argue with him. At least he didn’t ask any questions, other than the typical how long are you here for and where are you staying at.


[whYME] I got a little luckier. Apparently my agent had gotten the memo that some Americans now want their passports stamped and was happy to oblige.

[Something Fishy] But we weren’t done yet… next stop: the X-ray. Everything – bag, suitcase, whatever – was getting X-rayed. The military was manning the machines, giving the whole process a very creepy vibe. Duly zapped, we collected our bags and took them to yet another security checkpoint…  this time agents spot checking bags by hand.

whYME and CITH were ahead of me, and got waved through. Not wanting to get stuck with a long and annoying search, I sidled up alongside them and nonchalantly tried to pass through, but was unceremoniously stopped by an angry soldier.

I will tell you when to go through, don’t you dare try to go through yourself!” He glares at me for five seconds. “Now you could go through!”

Okaaaay ….

Now that we were officially not an enemy of the state it was time to meet up with our host, who had promised to be waiting for us with a taxi. Following the flow of people, we left the secure area and easily spotted Alexander, holding up a bit of cardboard with... my wife's name on it. I had forgotten that I had used her Airbnb account for the booking, and now Alexander was utterly bemused. He was expecting one woman; what he got instead were three very large, very bearded men, carrying a mountain of luggage. He started hemming and hawing about the taxi, and a minute later we saw why. In front of the airport sat a microscopic Hyundai - so small it didn't even come in a US version. The taxi driver was looking helplessly from the three of us to Alexander and back, then called him over and went into a huddle.

While the two of them tried to figure out how to get us all inside (there were no other taxis around that time of the night, so a second car wasn't an option), whYME went to exchange some money at the booth outside the airport.

As you can see, the airport looked fairly nice and modern:




The currency situation in Cuba is a bit crazy, but understanding the system is critical for not getting ripped off. There are two completely different currencies used, and both are - of course - called pesos. The Convertible Peso, called CUC and pronounced kook, is tied to the dollar at 1:1. The Cuban Peso, called CUP and pronounced coop, is also tied to the dollar, but at 25:1. Are you writing all this down? No? Good. Now, the CUC is used mostly by tourists and upper-class places, while the CUP is the typical street money and is officially illegal for non-Cubans to use.

Now... even though the CUC is tied to the dollar, there's a 10% penalty for changing dollars, on top of the 3% official exchange fee. That means that for every dollar you only get to keep 87 cents. Knowing all this, in the weeks leading up to this trip we exchanged around $500 to CAD and EUR by friends and family. Arriving in Cuba, we exchanged these for CUC at the official exchange rate, and boom - 10% penalty avoided.

Cash in hand, it was back to the huddle, where it was decided that we will indeed attempt to fit into the one taxi. After finagling most of the luggage into the trunk, whYME made a beeline to the front passenger seat ([whYME] As the largest (not the longest, but certainly the widest ) of the group, there's no way I was fitting in that back seat with two other people and having the doors close...) while CITH, Alexander, and I tried - unsuccessfully - to squash into the back row. Alas, the doors simply would not close .  In the end, it took a couple of locals pushing at us through the open windows with all their might to finally manage to shut the doors .

I found it interesting that our first interaction with a Cuban car was not with an old jalopy or a beautiful classic, but with a mundane Hyundai adorned with an American pop-culture decal:




Finally, contorted into ridiculous positions and beginning to get numb, we began the 45-minute drive to Havana proper. The ride was not particularly interesting - it was dark (especially since the driver was driving with his headlights off, unless there was another car approaching from the opposite direction ), and, being 2 am, we were too tired to appreciate anything interesting in any case.

Sardines:




It wasn't long before we were in Havana, and got our first impressions of this unique city. Classic cars were everywhere, every building was crumbling, and the streets were - inexplicably at this hour - filled with people.

Suddenly, the taxi pulls to the side and stops in front of a derelict building which looked like a shuttered storefront with a couple residential-looking floors above it.


[Cat In The Hat] As we pulled up to the house I looked at that and my only thought was "I hope this is just where we're picking up the key or something”. But when Alex popped the trunk and began taking the luggage out, that's when reality set in and I knew that I. Was. Doomed.

[Something Fishy] Stuff just got real.

Alexander opened the door and showed us inside... as it were. The stairway was nearly pitch black; a light from the far-off landing cast a weak glow:




I had read beforehand how the typical Cuban house had tremendously high ceilings, so climbing up two stories is more akin to climbing up four. But nothing prepared us for this arduous trek, up into the dark, lugging heavy suitcases, at 3 in the morning in the stifling heat. Luckily, Alexander helped us shlep a bit.

The second set of stairs was somewhat better lit, revealing brightly painted walls in a pretty terrible state of disrepair:




Walking into the apartment itself however, was a pleasant surprise: it didn't look half bad. It seemed clean, decently sized, and the walls, thankfully, appeared relatively whole. The ceilings were at least 16 feet high, the tilework and moldings were intricate, and the everything was painted in a wild variety of pastel colors.

The dining room:






The breakfront was absolutely packed with junk. All manner of bits and bobs filled up every available inch of space. In Cuba nothing is ever thrown away, for it may one day be useful. The Cubans are incredibly resourceful - with parts and consumer goods difficult to find (or even available at all), the entire country is McGyvered and held together by nothing more than odd parts and a prayer.

The dining room also held the fridge, and for some reason, a blender.

Off to the right was the "kitchen": a sink, stovetop (no oven), and some counter space. The bottom of the counter was stuffed to the gills with odd parts as well, and covered with a shower curtain-type of thing:




Further in was the living room. Smallish, but enough space for a couch, a couple of chairs, and a coffee table:



The bathroom had two doors, one to the living room and one to the bedroom, but no locks. Okaaaay... Other than that, it looked decent enough, with a rainfall shower head and a standalone water heater (that's the thingamabob mounted above the toilet):



The bedroom itself had a TV that didn't turn on, an armoire with one door installed upside-down, and the only air conditioner in the place. The bed was queen-sized and looked like... well, see for yourself :



Hang on just a minute - one queen bed? We may all be good friends, but we're not that close. This place was supposed to have four separate beds! No worries, says Alexander, the other beds are upstairs in his apartment. He disappears for five minutes, and comes back in lugging two bed frames and two mattresses. He sets up one bed next to the queen in the bedroom, and one off to the side of the living room. With that, he bids us good night, reminds us to come up if we need anything, and leaves.

At this point I was so exhausted that I collapsed on one of the newly-erected beds, which then proceeded to promptly collapse beneath me . Turns out these frames were not built with fat Americans in mind... So we took apart the frames and slept on the floor for the next four nights .

With Alexander gone, we were able to take in all the details of the place. For starters, it was absolutely, thoroughly, stifling hot. The AC in the bedroom didn't do much at all, and it definitely didn't reach into the rest of the house. As it turned out, the AC needed an hour or so to get going, after which the bedroom would get pleasantly cool. But the rest of the place was still a sauna; the two fans were the only thing that kept CITH alive sleeping in the living room.

Most rooms had huge windows, so we hoped to catch a breeze from those. Ha! The windows on one side opened into sort of an indoor courtyard/hallway thingy, where it was even hotter. The windows on the other side all opened into a shaftway, which is where all the neighbors stuck the back ends of their air conditioners out into; it was easily 120 degrees in there:




So basically we ended up shvitzing for a week like we've never shvitzed before; luckily the shower worked as advertised, as we used it multiple times a day throughout the trip.

The rest of the place was firmly in fourth-world territory. After the second day, the kitchen sink stopped working. It took Alexander all day to find the culprit: the neighbor on the floor below us had used up his water quota for the week, so he'd redirected our water supply to his own place. One loud argument later and we had water again.

The toilet on the other hand was not so lucky: that only lasted one day. Another investigation by Alexander and the problem was found: "you put the toilet paper into the toilet??? It goes in the garbage can!" Ummm... how about you tell us this juicy little detail ahead of time...? In any case, a plunger and a makeshift snake later and we had a working toilet again.

But that was before the sewer gas. U-bends? Those are so capitalistic. We walked into the house Tuesday afternoon only to get hit by, well, a pungent wall of sewer gas. Nah, says Alexander, this happens every few days. Nothing to worry about.

Yeah right. Thankfully whYME discovered the source in the bathroom sink, and plopped an upturned glass mug over the drain. We lost the use of that sink (good thing we had a kitchen sink. No, wait...), but at least the smell pretty much disappeared.

Now the electricity, that was a sight to behold. All the buildings in Old Havana are literally hundreds of years old (hence the "Old"), so lots of the electricity is jerry-rigged on the outside of the walls using a nightmare of exposed wiring and switches. The light switch in the kitchen looked so dangerous that we didn't turn in off for the duration of the stay for fear of blowing up the apartment, ourselves, or both.

Had we known all this before we came, there'd be no chance in the world that we'd actually book the place. In retrospect though, I'm glad we stayed. We got to live among the locals, and experience a bit of the real Cuba. It was an absolute adventure.

And if we thought that the house couldn't have gotten any worse, the next morning would prove us oh so wrong . But for now, we unpacked a bit, grabbed a bite, and slept like dead men.
« Last Edit: July 30, 2017, 09:38:10 PM by Something Fishy »
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Online Yaalili

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Thanks for this installment, saving to read on the subway later.

Offline @Yehuda

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Very fun reading material! Crazy adventure after another.

Offline 3yummyboys

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These cliffhangers!! Such a tease!


Online Something Fishy

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These cliffhangers!! Such a tease!

Heh, I was gonna leave it at this, but I figured that may be too mean ;D.

[Something Fishy] While whYME was cavorting around Panama, CITH and I headed to JFK together, and went straight to the Copa priority check-in lane. Right away the troubles started.

Check-in agent: What is this? You can't go to Cuba.
Me: Yes I can.
Agent: No you can't.
Me: Yes I can. Here's my journalism license.
Agent: Let's see your visa.
Me: I don't have one yet. The visa gets picked up in Panama.
Agent: No it doesn't.
Me: Yes it does.
Agent: I'm not gonna let you board.
Check out all my Trip Reports here!

Offline shulem92

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Heh, I was gonna leave it at this, but I figured that may be too mean ;D.
Its a good thing u didn't!

Online mmgfarb

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Heh, I was gonna leave it at this, but I figured that may be too mean ;D.
That would have been plain vindictive
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Offline Dawie

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The ceilings were at least 16 feet high
and you still had to duck?

Offline kEepItsimPLe

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Wow. Omg. This is incredible!

Offline Yehoshua

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Nice installment! Looking forward to the rest.