The Cuba no one talks about

Attachment-1After more than a decade of thinking about going to Cuba, I spent the weeks before my trip trying to temper my expectations. I didn’t want to be unfairly disappointed because I’d fallen for images of old cars and palm trees. While I understood intellectually that the country was poor and under the control of a dictatorship, I had a hard time imagining how that would play out in real life.

IMG_7920Let me quantify what I’m about to say with a bit of background: I am no stranger to poverty or hardship. I’ve travelled through out Latin America and have spent time in some of the poorest parts of Costa Rica and Nicaragua. I was in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward six months after Katrina, and have walked through communities shortly after they were leveled by tornadoes and hurricanes. Cuba was something else.

IMG_8286As I rode through towns and walked the streets, I kept reminding myself to take photos of not just the beautiful things, but of everything. Much has been made about the slackening of the U.S. trade embargo, and the opening of tourism. But what that means for the average citizen remains to be seen. A bike taxi driver pointed out several sites along Havana’s Malecon where hotels will soon rise. “Mientras, las casas de los Cubanos estan cayendo,” he told me. Meanwhile, the houses of the Cuban are falling. He wasn’t exaggerating.

IMG_8301Across the country, in cities and in small towns, people live without light, without running water, with holes in ceilings, and windows that don’t close. Black mold grows up walls inside and out, including at the hotels.  My sinuses and throat were coated in a matter of hours; it took me a week to recover.

IMG_8411As Cuba prepares to welcome Americans en mass, I fear that both sides are woefully unprepared for what they are about to encounter. Cuba doesn’t have the infrastructure to support a huge increase in tourism. And many Americans don’t have the patience to deal with the delays and shortages that are a regular part of life there.

IMG_8355The airport, with its two baggage carousels and one luggage cart, can’t keep up with the flights arriving each day. I waited three hours in an un-air conditioned terminal with few seats and no amenities for my suitcase. There was one bathroom for the hundreds of people waiting for their luggage: three of the toilets in the ladies room were functional. None had toilets seats. Paper was rationed by an attendant.

IMG_7893The old cars are quaint, but dilapidated. No seat belts, no a/c, and abominable gas mileage. Two out of the three times I took a taxi from Havana to my hotel (about 25 minutes), we had to stop for gas.

IMG_8112 While I understood (in the abstract) that the country is community and run by a generally totalitarian government, it was surprising to see it all in practice. The government owns almost everything: the hotels, most restaurants, the tour buses, the rum factories, the drink companies… everything. Menus offer “state soda,” soft drinks that are produced by the government. Coca Colas are few and far between, and usually cost more than twice the state “Kola.” In partaking of these things, I felt I was literally consuming communist ideology.

IMG_8122Perhaps this wouldn’t be such a big deal, if it wasn’t evident how the government also controls its citizenry. There is no First Amendment in Cuba, and no free press. The state-owned newspapers print the date on the front pages in years corresponding to time passed since the Cuban Revolution. As in “March 21, 58 years after the Triumph of the Revolution.”

FullSizeRenderWhile I loved the absence of advertising, the Communist propaganda that stood in its place was a constant reminder of the values and positions of the government. Billboards proclaimed, “Our dignity is not for sale” and “Your blockade, our broken dreams.” Images of Che Guevara (Hasta la victoria, siempre!) and Hugo Chavez (“El major amigo de Cuba!”) were everywhere. School children wore red neckerchiefs of the Jose Marti Pioneer Organization, a communist version of the scouts.

FullSizeRender-3The biggest shock though was the food. There isn’t enough of it. Store shelves are often empty. According to this story, as tourism increases, citizens compete with tourists for the necessities: eggs, meat, bottled water, and soft drinks. Those who can pay more win, but it’s hard to know that some family is going without because you could afford to pay more for your meat and bottled water.

IMG_8478I’m not writing all this to be a cynic or a downer. I say it because I worry that America’s romanticized Cuba doesn’t take into account the realities of life. Yes, there are some very, very good parts and people. But don’t let visions of rum and palm trees cloud your idea of what you’ll encounter once you get there.

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Dateline: Cuba (with five tips for travel)

“Welcome to Cuba,” a man in Havana told me. “Don’t try to understand it, just enjoy it.”FullSizeRender (1)
After spending last week on the island nation, I see what he was talking about. Cuba is a conundrum: sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrifying, sometimes magical, and sometimes frustrating.  The people were lovely, the government was scary, something I tried not to think too much about as I shelled out money at government-run restaurants, hotels, shops, and museums. And yet, as a result of the government control over almost everything, Cuba is exceedingly safe. I’ve never felt so comfortable walking the streets of a Latin American nation.IMG_8496I travelled to the island on a people-to-people visa with a group of fellow students. With things between the U.S. and Cuba changing so fast now, its unlikely that future travelers will have the same restrictions on activities that I did (basically, I had to follow an itinerary of meetings each day and had very limited free time). But folks have been asking, so that’s how I did it.IMG_8128

The trip was the culmination of a dream from almost 20 years ago. As an undergrad, I double majored in journalism and international studies, with a concentration in Latin America. As such, I spent a lot of time studying Latin American history, literature, and art. In that realm, Cuba featured prominently, and I longed to reconcile the Cuba I read about with real life.
IMG_8591When I moved to Miami, I began to understand more about the island’s tenuous history. Fidel Castro was Enemy Number One to Miami’s Cuban community, and any expression of desire to travel there was read as a betrayal to the people who had suffered so much after the Revolution. And yet, Cuba remained a not-so-distant curiosity that I wanted to see for myself.OriginalPhoto-479840394.721729Of course, life happens. I moved to Boston, changed jobs, discovered other places that I wanted to go. Cuba remained on the list, but it was easier to go to Iceland or Italy. Over time, I developed plans for how to get there, first thinking I’d go through Mexico City, and then deciding a puddle jumper from the Bahamas would be better. When the opportunity to go with a legitimate group presented itself, I decided the time had come.IMG_8275Since I took like 500 photos and have a lot of conflicting and random thoughts about the island, I thought I’d break the trip up into two posts: one general (this one) with a few specific recommendations regarding travel logistics, and another examining the good, the bad, and the strange. Look for the second post in the next day or two. IMG_8199
Tip 1: Don’t check a bag.
I arrived in Havana via an Eastern Airlines charter flight from Miami. In terms of infrastructure, there’s a lot that needs to be done if Americans are going to travel en mass to Cuba. The flight was delayed two and a half hours, for unclear reasons. When we got there, we waited for our bags in an un-air conditioned terminal with no food or drinks for another 2.5 hours. Someone told me that the entire airport has only one baggage cart for retrieving bags from planes, which leads to massive luggage delays. Not sure if that’s true, but I’d recommend against checking bags to Cuba on future flights until the situation improves.IMG_7877Once there, we headed to Varadero for three days at the beach. The beach was pretty, but unless you want to be surrounded by tourists, I’d advise against it. It wasn’t a terribly authentic experience. (Additional beach recommendations here.)

Tip 2: Bring snacks, but not chocolate
While the hotel was “all-inclusive,” the food left something to be desired. Yes, Cuban cuisine is excellent, but Cuba is notorious for its shortages. Tourists get the best the country has to offer, but it isn’t much. Buffets will be full of food that makes school lunches look appetizing. Twice, I had freshly made omlets laced with rotten cheese. Store shelves are bare, and portions are small. Between the food and the walking, I lost weight. To stave off “hanger,” I kept a supply of Kind bars and peanut butter crackers handy, and made sure to have plenty to share. That said, you want snacks that won’t melt- 20 minutes in the Cuban sun turns chocolate bars into soup, even (especially?) if they’re in your handbag. IMG_8359Tip 3: Do your research ahead of time. Bring hard copies of everything. 
After Varadero, it was off to Havana for four days. Things change so quickly in Cuba, I hesitate to recommend specific places or things, and if you ask locals for recommendations you’re likely to be pointed to touristy paladares where a plate of ropa vieja goes for $18.  The New York Times recently ran a piece that came in handy as I navigated the city, and Trip Advisor has some helpful hints. However, do you research before you leave, and print hard copies of everything; there is no such thing as 3G in Cuba. Instead, you’ll pay 2 Cuban pesos for a card that grants you on hour of internet time. Good luck finding a place to use it, aside from government run hotels, there are almost no wifi “hotspots.”IMG_8410Tip 4: Bring cash
This will hopefully change soon, but for the time being, you cannot use debit or credit cards issued by U.S. banks in Cuba. Travelers checks are rarely accepted. So you’ll need cash for everything. You can convert dollars in to cuban pesos (CUCs) at the airport and most government-run hotels. Never change money on the street. A hundred dollars a day is a good target (in addition to what you’ll spend on hotels), though I brought a bit extra in case of an emergency. IMG_8167Tip 5: Speak Spanish
While it’s possible to get around without speaking Spanish, the majority of Cubans I met spoke little English. Speaking Spanish enabled me to negotiate better deals with cab drives, learn more about the country, ask for directions, find the best ice cream, etc. And if your goal is to “see Cuba before it changes,” Spanish is almost a must to understand the story of the Cuban people. People were genuinely surprised to meet an American who spoke their language, and were more comfortable conversing in their native tongue. If you don’t speak Spanish, do the next best thing: go with someone who does.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Road trip part 3: The Grand Canyon

There’s one thing every guidebook and ranger tells you about the Grand Canyon: Do not attempt to hike from the rim to the Colorado River and back in one day.

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However, when the temperature is a mere 7 (Fahrenheit), and you’ve trained well, and you start at sunrise… well, Amina and I learned that it’s possible. Don’t try this at home kids.

After a night on the almost deserted North Rim (it’s closed in winter), I was’t quite prepared for the chaos that is the South Rim. It seemed like everyone and their selfie stick was there, many of them driving RVs for the first time. We fought for a parking space at the visitors center, hoping to find a ranger who could direct us away from the crowds, but she just gave us the same advice as the guidebooks: choose the Bright Angel Trail or the South Kaibab Trail, and do an out and back. Since we couldn’t get a reservation to stay at the bottom of the canyon in Phantom Ranch, and we didn’t want to haul a tent and sleeping bag across the country, we’d resigned ourselves to a day hike. However, after flighting with crowds for elbow room, we resolved to get an early start.

We left at 7:48 a.m., just before the mule train, which also goes down the Bright Angel Trail. We chose Bright Angel because if its proximity to parking; you have to take a shuttle to the South Kaibab trailhead.

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It was cold when we left, just about one degree. Between that and the icy downhill hike, warming up was hard. Finally, after about a mile on the trail, the snow cleared and the temperature warmed… a bit. We saw some mule deer, and a few other hikers. Because Bright Angel is set back, the scenery was pretty, but not amazing.

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Can you spot the deer?

Not too long after the mule deer, Amina and I came around a bend and came almost face to face with a bighorn sheep. The trail was less than six feet wide, built into the side of the canyon. It was almost sheer down to our left, and sheer up on our right. The sheep, just a few feet away, looked right at us and did not seem daunted. It’s graceful horned head came up to my chest.

“Turn around,” I told Amina. On the other side of the bend was a slight indentation in the cliff wall. I pointed at it. “Go there, get down.” Amina crouched on the sheltered side of the cliff and I followed. I let out a short yell, hoping that would scare the sheep. Instead, it ran right at us, passing by in an arm’s length. It stopped several feet up the trail and eyed us warily. “Let’s get out of here,” I said. My heart was pounding, and I had visions of getting head-butted off the canyon. I’ve been close to wild animals before, but black bears and deer usually run in the other direction, while alligators lay lazily in the sun, and bison pretend you aren’t there. The bighorn sheep was like nothing I’d seen before.

Our game plan was to hike for two hours and then assess where we were. Two hours in, we’d made it five miles to Indian Garden. If we turned around, we estimated we’d be back on the rim by 2 p.m., wasting three hours of daylight. If we kept going another hour, we’d make it back to the rim right about dusk.

FullSizeRenderLooking ahead

We had plenty of food and water, as well as extra layers and headlamps in case we got delayed. So we decided to go another hour. As the trail flattened out, we decided to start running. An hour later, we were on the banks of the Colorado River.

I never thought I’d touch the water there; everything I’d read and been told said that the eight-mile hike would take far longer. It was a surreal sense of triumph. If we’d made it to the river in three hours, we were pretty sure we could make it over to and up the South Kaibab trail in about six hours.

IMG_7356trail running  along the Colorado River

From the River Rest House, it was another mile to the suspension bridge leading to Phantom Ranch. We ran that as well, then stopped to walk when the sand got soft and the incline got steeper.

The South Kaibab trail was beautiful! So much prettier than Bright Angel. It is also supposedly steeper, but I didn’t think there was a drastic difference.

Attachment-1-6looking back at the trail

We stopped to take pictures and eat pb&js (seriously, the best sandwiches ever). Amina had a gps watch, and we could keep tabs based on landmarks, but I had a hard time believing the progress we made. Rule of thumb is that it takes twice as long to go up the canyon as it did to go down, but we did it closer to 1.5 times the rate.

Attachment-1-5all smiles

By 4 p.m. we were back on the South Rim, jelly-legged and smiling.

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Grand Canyon trip details:
Length: 16.5 miles (down Bright Angel, up South Kaibab), 5,500 feet elevation
Time: 7.5 hours, with some breaks for photos, snacks, hiding from sheep
Temp: Start 7 degrees, high ~30 degrees
Gear: heavy base layer, fleece, down jacket, hat, gloves
Other stuff: space blanket, water, snacks, headlamp, first aid kit

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