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Of Suffering and Redemption

August 27th, 2012 No comments

The integration into Cuscan living was a little more rough-and-tumble than our swift apartment find had led us to think it would be.

First our apartment, despite being pretty upscale and modern, was not of a high enough echelon of modernity to warrant central heating.  The nights were cold which took some getting used to, and the apartment would take until the afternoon each day to warm up again.  Second, Tracy and I got violently ill within 48 hours of move in.  Details are sketchy, but the money’s on the black beans which were soaked for a day in water that hadn’t been boiled in advance.  For two days we both underwent complete and involuntary system flushes, and that was our veritable moment of weakness.

World Tour just wasn’t looking that good.  After the rough stint in Cuba and generally a lot of being on the go, we were hungry for settling in to more real and regular life that didn’t so much resemble the oft-tiring backpacker’s lot.  And yet here we were, cold in our home, afraid to drink the water we’d boiled, and practically plastered to whichever horizontal surface seemed a fitting resting spot at the time between bathroom visits.  Adding to the distaste of the situation was the suddenly fresh memory of being similarly sick in the Philippines, the last time we traveled out of the country.  It seemed all too recent, like an undeniable and unpleasant pattern was revealing itself.

We did what there was to do: give ourselves permission to frankly explore the possibility that we were getting too old for this sort of adventure, that world tour wasn’t such a great idea, and that it might be really nice to retreat.  We did this to keep it real.  For you see a part of the ego and identity of both Tracy and myself is the notion that “Yay!  We’re good travel people, we do cool travel stuff and that makes us interesting, yay!”  So what if we’re not good travel people, then what does that make us?  We were of sound enough mind to realize it would be a fool’s errand to pretend we were enjoying ourselves when we were not, just to keep that piece of our egos in tact.

Our conversation to vent about and explore the degree to which World Tour was sucking lasted about 10 minutes.  With all complaints on the matter out in the open and ripe to catalog & objectively assess, we recognized that not all in fact was horrible: it just can seem that way when you and the only person around you are both in the throws of bodily distress.  Really you can only take the misgivings of someone as sick as us only so seriously, for when it passes one’s outlook changes mighty fast.

Sure enough, when we were fully recovered a day or so later, the world seemed beautiful, and World Tour once again a darn good idea.  There’s nothing quite like feeling near death for a few days that has being up and about alive seem so fantastic.

Which then thus takes us to the matter of living in Cusco.  Let me start by saying  I just DIG Peruvian culture: I dig the music, I dig the food, I dig the art, I dig the women dressed in traditional garb leading their alpacas through the streets.  Cusco is delightfully walkable (we never have to wrestle with getting a cab and attendant gringo taxation), and while winding through the narrow cobblestone streets there is no shortage of opportunities to see instances of these four categories and more.  Tracy has fantastic pictures of both the main plaza and the streets of Cusco.  (In fact you should probably click around to others posts: her Cusco coverage is quite comprehensive.)

Shortly after regaining my appetite, I discovered the ubiquitous Cuscan “polloria”.  They are like carbon copies of one another, a simple and well replicated model for selling chicken dinners.  Five soles ($2 US) gets you a decent sized piece of chicken, a bowl of soup, a pile of fried rice and french fries, and access to the salad bar (a few metal tins filled with tasty cooked beets, a carrot and onion medley, and some other prepped veggies).  Oh, and the chicken, prepared as it is upon a bunch of rotating skewers over a wood fire oven, is like the best chicken you’ve ever had at a summer BBQ with someone who really knows what they’re doing with chicken.

Talk about a ready made meal.  It has come in handy on more than one occasion, and for 19 soles you can get half a chicken, which I refer to as “strategic reserves”.

In the interest of adjusting and fostering a certain resilience in our cold apartment, I set out late in the first week on a small shopping spree of warming alpaca garb.  Knit gloves with the fingers cut out, long knit socks, and a pair of alpaca slippers that to me are both goofy and loved marked my spoils, and I’ve had less to complain about ever since.

Speaking of commerce, entrepreneurship is alive and well in Cusco.  Many laundromats, restaurants, yoga studios, general stores and more can be recognized as simply the front room to someone’s place, meaning it appears as though setting up a business can be as simple as setting a “Laundry – 2 hour service” sign outside your door and having the right appliances in back.

Reliability, reputation and customer service seem to be equally casual affairs, though.  Three for three times I’ve had to return to the laundromat at least twice because either our clothes were not ready when promised or the proprietor was just, well, out.  One night I was particularly peeved by the situation as I’d paid double for same day service1.  The owner of the store next door told us “she’s out, try back in 30 minutes.”  Lemons to lemonade, we took a walk up the steep hill from our house and enjoyed a spectacular sprawling night time view of the city.  Cusco is nestled in a valley, so there is no shortage of high perches from which to look down upon its charming, skyscraper-less neighborhoods, dotted with warm lights at night, and featuring the Andes in the distance during the day.  We’d lived here for two week and still not come up for the view, so this was a win.

My irritation mellowed from time well passed, we returned 30 minutes later.  “She’s not here, just wait, I’ll call her.”  With my mellow once again harshed by 10 more minutes of waiting, we found solidarity in another gal who came along and knocked upon the vacant door.  “Necassitas sus ropas tambien, eh?” I asked.  “Si.”  “De donde es?”  “Angleterre.”2  “Ah, well in that case we’ll have no trouble conversing in English!”  And that’s how we made the acquaintance of Tammy, a med student from England.  In ten more minutes of waiting we learned that Tammy was well traveled and a great conversationalist.  After we all got our laundry and headed our separate ways home, we learned she was our downstairs neighbor, sharing her flat with 3 other med students from England.

I figured it fitting to secure our new acquaintance as a friend: “Listen, we were down by the plaza earlier today and there’s this bakery that has these big, amazing looking cakes.  Tracy and I would never get through one of those on our own.  What do you say you and your flat mates come up for cake some night next week?”  And thus a plan was made for the next Wednesday, and that’s how we got to host our first gathering at our place since moving out of our place in Denver.  A lovely time, too: three and a half hours of chatting over cake and tea and we’ve got peeps in England.

The days here spent working have been uncommonly productive.  Perched at the dining room table with laptop, gloves, hat and ear buds the outside world just sort of melts away whenever I go in for deeply focused programming.  So much so that Tracy has declared spousal neglect once or twice, and for it insisted I unplug and get out to enjoy the town with her.  Yesterday it was a hike to Sacsayhuaman, the ruins of an Inca fortress on grounds high above the city.   Fantastic views of the city, larger than life Inca stonework, and watching a group of 10 alpacas graze about were the rewards of this mandated unplugging.  Again, Tracy’s photography does our experience more justice than my words.

Truly, despite its rough beginnings, this town is growing on me.

Notes:

  1. Not to mention this was the second time the reunion with our clothes was greatly delayed with this particular merchant–fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, etc. etc.
  2. Translation: You need your clothes too, eh? / Yep. / Where are you from? / England.
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Cancun to Cusco

August 9th, 2012 No comments

After the wedding Tracy and I laid low a little in our swanky condo 3 stories up from the beach, where we enjoyed meal after meal of simple and fantastic local flavor from the nearby grocery store: rice, black beans (prepared from dry as opposed to canned), slices of avocado, spritzes of fresh lime, Cholula hot sauce, and (for me) carved off slices of rotisserie chicken, all wrapped up in fresh flour tortillas.  We had essentially this meal eight times in our 3 days, with zero qualms about its repetition.

One afternoon while returning from a walk on the beach and washing the sand off our feet in one of those cool little outdoor shower spigots, a native-looking fellow called down to us from the second floor balcony of one of the units.  “Are you guys on your honeymoon?”1  A few more moments of our exchange and he invited us up: “We’re having a party, would you like to come in?”

Brief flashback: before leaving the states, a friend challenged me to, in his words, “Not exactly ‘put yourself in danger’, but say yes to- and go along with situations when you don’t know how they’re going to turn out.  I’d like to see you go through your travels with this sort of measured recklessness, and for it have a lot of cool experiences you might have otherwise missed.”

There on the beach that afternoon my friend’s words popped right into my head.  With half a moment’s consideration I replied “Sure, unit 5?  We’ll be right up.”

Our measured recklessness was immediately rewarded by a welcoming gang of gringos gathered ’round a dining room table, whereat we were quickly offered sangria or beer, and chips & guacamole.  We were in the vacation condo of a lovely couple from Berkley.  We had been invited on up by Chino, an artist of the Mayan carving tradition who was in from his village to showcase a bunch of his work to one of his patrons.

It was way cool to see his work, including a carving-in-progress that had been commissioned by our hosts.  His pieces were of a caliber and consistency to look right out of the pages of National Geographic.  Tracy and I each independently had a pang of concern that we’d been roped in to buy something, but nothing of the sort came up.  Just a bunch of travel savvy ex-pats plus Chino and his wife, just hanging out, swapping stories, and talking art.

Thanks Chino, I hope your fab pieces constitute a career-making find for an archaeologist in 500 years (and, of course, that your art career continues to go swimmingly in this era).

One night we spent enjoying the better part of a bottle of Havana Club Cuban white rum.  I mention this not because getting blitzed on rum is a particularly intriguing or impressive tale of travel, but just to reiterate and remember how uncannily good that stuff is.  I hope to enjoy it again in other countries that are willing to import and sell Cuban goods.

Oddly enough our lay low time would have been more relaxing had we not had such a primo view of the bay, for that gave us a front row seat to the developing weather patterns of what would become hurricane Ernesto.  As winds, clouds, rain, and choppy waves all picked up I’ve never refreshed a page on weather.com so frequently, concerned to be stuck in a tropical storm and concerned for how our flight out might be impacted.

In hindsight I worried about it much more than was due.  After a restless night of sleeping to on and off howling winds, we awoke to howling winds that were then decidedly off.  Our drive to the airport saw roads that were clear and already nearly dry.  The only strife that morning was a stop at a gas station where a number 2 was of imminent importance and then stupidly leaving my credit card behind with the attendant (ugh!).

And then we flew to Peru.  Business class.  During our 4 hour layover in Houston I had the thought whilst walking through the terminal: hey, we’re probably entitled to go hang out in the United lounge, right?  Like a kid who’d just rifled through his father’s wallet and was now reservedly brandishing his ill-gotten credentials, I asked the lady bouncer perched behind the desk outside the doors to the luxury lounge.  “That’s only if you’re flying internationally.” came back the answer with slight reproach, as if speaking to some rube who has clearly no business in high society2.

“Ooh, yes, that’s us!  We’re going to Peru this afternoon.”  I replied like a kid who was too proud to have succeeded in his effort to sneak some free drinks and snacks.

We were welcomed in and on our way.  The funny thing is we found it hard to shake the feeling that we were just two punk kids who weaseled our way in among the business folk.  After all we hadn’t paid 2-5x for our ticket, it was a trade in for frequent flyer miles.  And our attire was, unsurprisingly, a lot more backpacker than business suit.  I even felt like I pulled one over on the bartender when I asked for a beer and he actually served me.

Fortunately we had a much easier time settling in to our business class status during our 6-hour flight.  Ample wine, great food, and spacious seating all had me better understand the allure.  I even got a kick out of hearing “Thank you for flying with us tonight, Mr. and Mrs. Larson.” at the end.  I don’t know if we’ll ever be ballin’ enough to want to splurge on business class with real cash in the future, but the experience taught me that investing in a few glasses of wine is probably good for reliving about 60% of the upgrade experience.

In Lima we were slightly crestfallen to see the customs agent write “30” next to our passport stamp (meaning we had 30 days to be in Peru), and then happy again to hear our hostess’s assurance that extensions are available at $1US per day.  Our hostess was a USA’ian woman3 married to a Peruvian fellow, and together they run a top-rated AirBNB place complete with optional service to pick you up from the airport4.

The next day we flew to Cusco.  The Andes is a good lookin’ mountain range for sure, and stellar views thereof made our 2 hour flight pleasant and memorable.  Like a highschooler cramming for 5th period test during lunch hour, I spent most of the flight skimming Lonely Planet’s Cusco entry off of Tracy’s Kindle.  Apparently, I read, it should cost 5 Peruvian Soles for a cab to the city center.  I was quoted S./20, and reluctantly went along when I got the driver down to S./15, which despite S./5 savings was not a very satisfying bargaining outcome.  However at S./2.6 to the US dollar it wasn’t worth losing sleep over.

What was worth losing sleep over was the cold: our room at the Hospedaje we chose for the night had fab views of the main city plaza, but it was merely wood shutters that constituted the closing of those windows.  Year round, Cusco, with its 11,000 foot elevation, gets up to the 70s during the day, but down to the 30s at night.

Before turning in that night we did our homework.  Seven soles worth of phone calls and internet access got us in touch with Javier of the Condor Lodge, a purveyor of fully furnished apartments quite close to central Cusco.  “We’d love to see the apartment tonight, if possible.”  30 minutes hence Javier would pick us up from the steps in the main plaza.  30 minutes more and we were handing over $100US for the deposit with both keys and a plan to return the next day to move in.  “This was just vacated this morning, I need to clean it tonight and you guys can come back whenever tomorrow and settle in.”

Beautiful.  A chilly night in our Hospedaje was all that separated us from our new home in Cusco for the month.

Notes:

  1. Do we still give that vibe whilst walking hand in hand on a beach?  Sweet!
  2. To be fair, she was simply addressing the very tone of voice that had originally inquired.
  3. Now that we’re in South America, it’s really kind of gauche and literally vague and/or incorrect to call someone from the US an “American”.  I still haven’t worked out a succinct replacement for the term, so USA’ian, even though my spellchecker decries it, will have to do.
  4. That’s right: after flying business class we rounded out the experience by having a guy holding a sign with our names on it as we exited the airport.
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Somebody Got Married on a Beach

August 6th, 2012 2 comments

And I had more to do with it than usual, probably more to do with anyone getting married than I’ve ever had before1.  For the beach wedding of Jon and Morgan in Akumal, Mexico I had the profound privilege of officiating the ceremony.  I’ve been excited about this since first asked by Morgan, by phone, while in the middle of the cornfields of Illinois en route to visit friends back in May–so tickled was I that I think I’ll always remember where I was when that invitation came my way.

And it was every bit the honor I thought then that it would be.  Tracy and I headed for Akumal in our rental car late Friday night, and got checked in to our swanky digs2 at around 9pm.  From there I went straight to the resort to pick up the bride and groom for a night-before jam session to polish up the ceremony and give it practice run.

It was fun.  The ceremony that Jon and Morgan created was very deliberately crafted.  They started with a blank ceremony, and added only what they wanted.  Everything in the ceremony was there because it was personally meaningful: there wasn’t an ounce of including bits in order to check things off of some (real or imagined) list of external expectations.  Bits that constituted the ceremony included the mutual welcoming of the new son- or daughter-in-law by the parent pairs, a remixed Celtic hand fasting ceremony (of which I am most certainly a fan), exchanging of rings, and a unique Water Ceremony to honor the parents, crafted by Jon and Morgan based on Chinese tea ceremonies.

For practice that night we had to improvise a little on props, and fortunately I had some local coinage on hand to fill in.  See if you can recognize this line with its impromptu edits:  “Jon and Morgan, you now exchange Mexican pesos with one another. When you give each other these Mexican pesos, you are giving and receiving a symbol of your eternal love.  A love that, like the circle formed by each of these Mexican pesos, has no beginning and no end.”  By midnight with a little practice, a medium amount of word smithing, and a lot of humorous non sequiturs, we were all ready for tomorrow’s ceremony.

9am yoga by Tracy marked the beginning of the big day.  I hadn’t been in one of Tracy’s classes in a long time, man it was good.  Her classes are as fitting a source of a slowly percolating nerd crush which ultimately culminates in marriage as I can imagine.

Anyway, personal nostalgia aside, it was a good class and a fine way to bond and connect with the wedding attendees.  After class we had an hour or two to scope out the ceremony site, make some logistical arrangements (a 3-ring binder and a print job were of unusually high importance to me that day), and hang a little with the gang.  Tracy and I then retreated to our place for a nap and to get into suitable officiant garb (khakis, sandals, and a nice white dress shirt from Cuba–Ron kindly lent the shirt to me: we are the same build, after all).

Back at the resort 4pm came quite quickly, it was go time.  I was referred to mistakenly as “the minister” once or twice, which gave me more of a kick than it probably should have.  With sunscreen and beach formal attire donned,  I strode confidently along the resort walkway towards the ceremony site, brandishing the binder and playing the role of authorized practitioner of the officiating arts as best my first-timer status would allow3.

I played the part, and had such a good time doing it.  My great joy was to watch Jon and Morgan both nearly lose it, with glassy eyes clearly moved by the words which they had created and I was delivering.  Seeing the parents in the front row similarly moved at the sight of their children’s nuptials was further assurance that I was getting my job done.

The only gaffe in my officiating was one of the last lines: Morgan and Jon had handed out beach-style woven hats and fans for everyone in attendance.  After their kiss my line was “In the interest of keeping this beautiful landscape in pristine condition, Morgan and Jon would like you to toss your hats in the air to celebrate.”  Now then, you may be familiar with the near-ubiquitous lyric “throw your hands in the air / like you just don’t care”.  I sure am, and so I accidentally/effortlessly subbed in the word “hands” for “hats”.  A few chuckles and seconds later I realized my mistake, corrected course, and presented for the first time Mr. and Mrs. Jon and Morgan Meredith.

I can’t think of a more delightful role to play as an attendee in a wedding, especially of such close friends.  My gratitude to them for trusting me with such a position on such a meaningful day.

Such is my gratitude and overall joy with the position that I say this to everyone else: if you want a destination wedding somewhere around the world this year, pick a place where Tracy and I are at and I will avail myself to officiate the heck out of that thing.  I will even waive my standard, not-yet-existent fee for officiating services.  Satisfaction guaranteed.

The rest of the wedding was a joy, with the great food, great toasts, and rollicking dance party that a summer full of weddings has me well attuned to reveling in.  We said our meaningful goodbyes to bride, groom and company around 1am, and headed back to our place having officially wrapped up our summer of wedding attendance.

For some quite pretty pictures of our surrounding in Akumal, see Tracy’s blog.

Notes:

  1. Except for with Tracy: I had really quite a lot to do with that one.
  2. More swanky than we bargained for, actually.  We originally booked a more modest place just up the street, but our delightful hostess informed us two weeks prior that there was construction going on around that building, and so asked if it would be okay if she moved us to a nicer alternative.  Yes, please, and thank you!  People are awesome.
  3. In case you were wondering, I am not ordained by any particular authority.  Here all the paperwork was handled back in L.A. beforehand, which was good because I hadn’t packed my chemistry set, necessary for processing blood samples to prove the non-relatedness of bride and groom.
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Isla Mujeres and Castro’s Kingdom

August 3rd, 2012 2 comments

Our first order of business upon landing in Cancun was to hop a ferry over Isla Mujeres, which translates as “The Island of Women”1.  Our friends are house sitting on the island and were able to put us up for the night.  Like Tracy and I, Anne and Mike are world nomads, but in their case it is indefinitely so, a fact which I find delightfully hard core of them.

Our “hop a ferry” motion was actually a 7 hour journey from the moment of stepping off our plane, consisting of immigration, customs, a bus wait, a bus ride, a taxi ride, a ferry wait and ride, plus a few errands.  Accordingly, our friends were so very much the welcome sight when we arrived around 9:30pm.  The upside to the long travel day is that I slept like a baby on the futon in their delightfully appointed (yet wickedly warm) living room that night.

The next day was a very vacation-like day of island life.  Breakfast consisted of exceptionally delicious coconut pancakes at a place called the Mango Cafe.  Midday was a jaunt to the beach featuring every aspect of perfection you would expect in your standard issue platinum-grade beach: white sand, turquoise waters, palm tree shade, and guacamole & beers never more than 100 steps away.  Evening was burritos on the street-facing terrace of a restaurant located on what I would call “tourist row”: the pedestrian street lined for blocks with lovely street-facing restaurant terraces.  Night featured beers under the stars whilst on the rooftop terrace back at the house.  A perfect day in paradise, and our hosts, as folks who have been living outside of the US since December, were the perfect people to spend the day swapping stories, perspectives, and ideas as we embark internationally.

A word about outdoor showers: they are one of the most delightful ways I think one can experience running water.  On the rooftop terrace of their house, there is an outdoor shower.  Third floor, above the tree line, and with views of the Caribbean Sea to both the east and the west.  If you ever have the opportunity to take an outdoor shower in the tropics, especially if elevated views of nature are involved, do it.  It is brilliantly refreshing, a veritable communion with Earth and its majestic scenery.   When a bird squawks in the distance, it’s like being cat-called by God.

The next day our gracious hosts dropped us off at the ferry as we set off for the Cancun airport once more, this time to fly to Cuba.  Now then, it turns out that going to Cuba is, well, kinda frowned upon by the US state department.  So we didn’t actually go.  Nope, during that week we had earmarked for it, we just laid low in Cancun.  Fortunately for this narrative, however, we met a couple named Ron and Jaycee who just went there and told us all about it2.  So I’m going to co-opt Ron’s story and use his words as my own to describe what he saw and experienced there.


Our first impression of the efficiency of Cuba’s industry was a poor one: our Cubana Airlines flight was, after a gradual sequence of push-backs to the departure time, 8 hours late.  This got us into the country with a local time of 1am.  Add on the usual dance of entering a country and it was 2:30am when we left the airport.  Finding a taxi was no problem, and after piling in with another couple we met at the airport we headed off into Havana.

At that early hour the Cuban countryside had a peaceful, almost magical feel to it.  The air was sweet from the nocturnal perfume of tropic vegetation.  Our cab driver narrated with prideful knowledge the make and year of the numerous classic cars we passed: a ’48 Chevrolet here, a ’54 Chrysler there, and so on.

“Where are you staying?” he asked us.  “No idea: a friend recommended we start at the Hotel Nationale, but since it’s so late we wouldn’t get to enjoy it much.”  It was one phone call and about 45 seconds later he said “I’ve got you set up at a Casa Particulare3, I’ll drop you right off.”  Ten minutes later we pulled up to an unassuming 4 story apartment building whereat a fellow in his mid-40s was sitting on the steps.

After paying the fare and bidding our companions safe travels, we were quickly escorted in and up the stairs by our host, Jaime.  In his 4th floor home we met his wife, Katty (pronounced Katie) who eagerly greeted and welcomed us with energy and awakeness seldom to be expected for strangers barging in at 3am.  We were shown where to find water in the kitchen and then swiftly escorted to our room, complete with wall AC unit and its own connected bathroom.  After being bid goodnight we breathed a collective sigh, and admired how refreshingly simple and nice it was to make such a smooth landing into an above-average foreign country, especially at the late hour and having made zero preparations.

The next day was a joy.  Our hostess laid out a varied spread for our breakfast, consisting of guava, mango, cucumbers, eggs, fried pork, juice, coffee, bread and butter.  Our host then walked us out street side and got us a taxi taking us to central Havana.

After changing money in one of the hotels on Parque Centrale, we were relieved of our first peso by way of a photo op with a compelling Castro4.  We wandered the tree-lined plazas, took in the architecture and well-preserved cars from the 40s and 50s, and marveled the degree to which being here was like stepping back in time.

After a ride on the top level of the obligatory double-decker sight seeing bus, taking in all form of tastefully executed nationalist propaganda (turns out they’re still really big on Che here), we stopped in a cafe for a snack and our first sampling of Cuban rum.  It was, much like the many to follow, about the best mojito I’ve ever tasted.  I’m usually a vodka man ma’self (it just agrees with my system much more than any other), but Cuban rum to me was uncommonly good, in all categories of taste, buzz, and the feeling afterwards.

In our inspired state we walked 150 paces to the waterfront, a lengthy series of rocky outcroppings that, amid the milder setting sun, was dotted by hundreds of locals reveling in and around the water.  I was content to just sit and watch from my little patch of rock, enjoying the cool air and happiness about.  My love meanwhile struck up a conversation with a local, a sort of language exchange wherein he practiced his English while she practiced her Spanish.

When the sun hung low and dinner time felt near, we wandered along the waterfront in search of a suitable venue.  We soon noticed a restaurant visible only by its second floor veranda, and decided it would do.  A great find: setting sun, sea breezes, then candle light marked our meal.

That marks the gist of our first day.  I would love to tell you that the remaining 4 were quite so charmed, but our experience fell sharply from there.  To illustrate why, I’ll enumerate the conditions which I feel are necessary in order to have a really good time in Cuba (as opposed to offer up a string of whiny tales of what exactly disenchanted us, which I could also do but I think few would care to read).

Here they are:

1. A really good handle on Spanish.  We’re historically pretty solid with our ability to comfortably get by in Spanish speaking countries, but the Cuban accent is different enough to be quite disorienting.  We found even our hosts to be quite difficult to understand for all but the most basic things.  Furthermore, strong Spanish would make a fine defense against gringo taxing which, in Cuba, we found to be well above par rampant.  Over charging and “accidental” short changing happened with almost comical regularity.

2. Plenty of money and ability to access it.  Our Casa Particulare was about $35 US a night, but got old after a while (you’re essentially someone’s house guest).  Not caring about money would have meant some fancier hotels and going out to nice restaurants or clubs, which would have been nice: the novelty of Cuba wore off by about day two, when it then became clear we were in just another Central American city with its fair share of poverty, decay and pollution5.  The problem is that, for a US citizen, what you’re willing to pack in cash is all you have to work with: there’s no way to get more when you run out, because your credit or ATM cards can’t be used.  Accordingly, we felt compelled to be ere on the conservative side in our budgeting.

3. Native family or friends.  There are actually two distinct currencies in Cuba: one for the tourists, and one for the locals.  Pricing is way different between the two,and it seems to split the country by its commercial offerings into two separate worlds.  It could be merely a lack of savvy on our part, but this seemed to make the tourist bubble quite difficult to penetrate indeed.  Knowing a native I think opens up much more of Cuban culture, beyond what is setup as for tourists to play (not that that’s not great, see again my account of our day one).

If you meet at least two of these conditions, you’re probably all good to go.  If you meet only zero or one of these conditions, you might want to skip Cuba: it just got old for us quickly, and thus we wouldn’t recommend it to a friend.

Further damning to Cuba (though certainly not fair as this certainly needn’t apply to everyone) is that our trip ended with me getting sick.  The rounds of marching about the high heat and sun (93F in the shade) while exploring the town found me getting a cold sore on my lower lip, which our hosts reason got infected to subsequently cause my fever and diarrhea6.  On the plus side, they were able to hook me up with a course of antibiotics without batting an eye.  I recovered just in time for our flight back, delayed this time by a mere 3.5 hours.

So that was Cuba.  When we returned to Cancun it seemed positively bright, clean, and modern by contrast.  We were told that we had to go check out Cuba soon, while it was “still all Communist and AWESOME”.  I so wanted to dig on Communism, but alas our rough experience has that desire fall short.


Thanks Ron, for that account.  Looks like Tracy and I dodged a real bullet by being law-abiding citizens!  For photos detailing the country obtained by perfectly legal means, visit Tracy’s blog.

Tomorrow is the fourth and final wedding that Tracy and I are attending this summer.  Time to get my game face on and tend to my preparations: I’m officiating the ceremony.

Notes:

  1. I like to think that this naming was a smart effort on the part of the island’s tourism board, wishing not to be outdone by Cancun in its promise to collegiate spring breakers of abundant drunken hookups.  (“Hey dudes, we should totally go to the Island of Women!” “Yeah!”  “Woo!” etc. etc.)  I’m fully prepared to be proven wrong on this one: the comically-colored glasses through which I sometimes view the world do but entertain, and are not threatened by contradicting facts.
  2. Like me, Ron is also 6′ 5″, and married his yoga instructor.  Unlike me he and his wife had a General License for academic, research and religious travel, with which it is perfectly legal to visit Cuba.
  3. A Casa Particulare refers to a privately owned home that hosts tourists, as opposed to a public one.  The government of Cuba wants your money if you’re a tourist, thus it is illegal to lodge in just anyone’s home.  Thus your options are a hotel, a public lodging house, or a registered Casa Particulare.
  4. I have digitally altered Ron in that photo to look more like me.
  5. Incidentally, there is a real downside to the abundance of really cool classic cars.  Whether you like or hate the environmental lobbying groups that have passed the host of mandates on clean emissions for automobiles in the US, a trip back to a land of abundant 40s- and 50s-era cars makes it clear that those mandates are, well, kinda nice.  Formidable clouds of smog bellow from each car’s tailpipe as they accelerate from a stop, and the net effect is evident to anyone breathing within 30 feet.
  6. My friend succinctly summarized my situation as being trapped in a “Communist Herpes Deathtrap”.  Not a kind or even fair phrasing, but hilarious enough to include as part of the poetry of this report.
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