29 November 2014

On the Way to SE Asia: A People-to-People Detour to a BeautifulCaribbean Island Nation

Written through Saturday, 29 November...

Although I've been here in the Caribbean for twelve days and will soon depart, I'm just now able to both string my thoughts together AND find a decent Wi-Fi connection... this is the first of at least four thought collections in order... más o menos...

I'll start with a few somewhat random thoughts and discoveries from my first three days in this beautiful Caribbean island nation and then get into the first day of the tour...

Those thoughts pretty much in the order they occurred:

Only one cellular line is permitted per family. For foreigners, a cell card costs $3/day PLUS call charges. I went without.

You shall put NO paper in the toilet! Not even TP...

Wireless Internet is available only in the lobby of a few selected hotels.  You pay between CUC$4.50-$8/hour (approximately US$5-$9.20) for a one-hour encoded card that is usable for up to 30 days after first use. Internet in private homes is illegal. As I will find out in a few days, Wi-Fi outside the capital city is a very rare and precious find.

Paladars (restaurants in private homes) we've tried so far are over-rated. Their food is average (for Cuba), service is, at best, indifferent. Note: A few days later, the motorcycle tour guide took us to a couple very good ones, so it's hit or miss.

It's been raining steadily since my arrival (and before, so I didn't bring it). The locals are less than thrilled by the rain, even though it's warm and usually lasts only a short time.

Bici-taxi (three-wheeled bicycle with a double bench seat over the rear wheel and a roof against rain or sun) costs only CUC$2 or less from the apartment we are staying in to anywhere we want to go in Havana. Those drivers work HARD hauling my large American ass around! Fortunately, the inclines are mostly gradual. I should probably stop feeling sorry for them when I, a passenger; there are plenty of locals whose rear ends are larger than mine ;-)

The small apartment we are renting for the first three days is nice. The owner is Jorge Luis, a tall redhead we saw only twice. One bedroom, sitting room with TV and dining table, small kitchen and a private bathroom w/ shower and plenty of hot water. We found it through Yanet's Uncle Maximio who lives down the hall.

We are doing lots of walking. It's sometimes challenging in the rain because the sidewalks are uneven and mostly narrow, while streets are under repair and muddy with a LOT of standing water. Yanet doesn't like even the liquid sunshine variety, so we purchased a decent umbrella for ~US$7.

For some reason I am unable to name, I am less enamored with this beautiful island than on previous visits. This is, most likely, my last visit.

Havana's people, day-to-day, seem poorer than the people in Saigon; clothing, housing, shops, all seems worse... though one does hear more music here; there are no roaming street vendors and very few beggars. While motos (small step-through motorbikes) are almost non-existent, three are a few smaller motorcycles up to 250cc or so.

My guess is that over 95% of Cuban men have never been reprimanded for leaving the toilet seat up... because most toilets here don't have seats. In my second day here, I was surprised to see one in a restaurant WC.

While walking through the old town I was tempted by a couple pieces of artwork and managed to resist. I'm getting rid of things, not accumulating them!

The Motorcycle Tour
Day 1
Friday, 21 November

After a great lunch of paella with Yanet's friend Daniel (a very interesting street vendor, she and I said our goodbyes and I took a taxi to the first two nights' hotelHotel Occidental in the Miramar neighborhood. Unlike Miami's Miramar, you can actually see the ocean from this one... and from my room! This is only the second time I've had an ocean view room... I never see the point in springing for the extra $$, since I rarely spend much time in the room. Maybe if it had a balcony...

I was the last one of the group to arrive at the hotel and Manuel (our Tour Guide) greeted me at the front desk. I later found out that his name is really Emmanuel, though I completely understand why he's shortened it here! He and four of the six others were sitting just off the lobby waiting for the official check-in time of 3 p.m. at which time, he assured us that he had been assured they would magically be ready for occupancy. And they were, more or less... in two cases, towels and sheets were delivered while we were at dinner.

Manuel told us that the bikes suffered a two-week delay in-transit from Denmark and had just arrived that morning. He assured us that although they were still in their container in the ship, we will get them tomorrow afternoon as scheduled and they will be ready for our viaje grande.

We exchanged our abbreviated CVs and I am the only motorcycle tourist virgin in the group. This is Christina's (Australia) fifth Edelweiss tour and the others, Rudy (Germany) and Marcel (Holland) have toured with other groups; Marcel has toured in Asia, Europe, and Africa and lived in the latter two. I will learn this evening that the sole couple on our tour, Bea and Walter (Switzerland) have toured extensively in the US and Europe.

During our pre-dinner overall tour briefing, Manuel (Italy) told us that since travel by foreigners is very restricted here, we would have to stay with the group at all times.

WTF?! One of the reasons I took this tour was that the company web site specifically states that one of the great thing about their tours is that you have the opportunity to go out and seek adventure on your own, get lost, see new things, et cetera... AND it is again specifically called out three times in the dedicated tour brochure!!!

Both Marcel and I raised our hands and said that this was NOT what we were promised. Unfortunately, Manuel immediately went on the defensive and got a little aggressive, which would probably work with most people who do a lot of tours. I, as many of you know, very rarely fall into the "most people" category. Fortunately, Marcel was as adamant as I and we nicely and firmly stated our case:
1) The web site touts off-group rides
2) I bought a country-specific GPS chip
3) Maurice and I each have thousands of kilometers of solo rides in countries in which we do NOT speak the language; I do speak sufficient Spanish
4) And more

After a few minutes of discussion, Manuel got so angry at us that he abruptly stood and stormed off after sputtering, "Well then, I cannot be your friend!"


I'm not looking for a friend, pandejo, I'm looking for the tour for which I paid a shitload of money (US$8000 plus airfare)!!! While you're at it, could we also please have a rational, professional guide? The first sentence was aloud, the second was, I'm pretty sure, only internal.

By the time we went to dinner, Manuel had calmed down. He told us (by way of apology?) that he is overworked and needs a vacation... as if that excuses his outburst. Putting on my "Customer Service Expert" hat for a moment, I found this extremely unprofessional. If you need a vacation, then either take one or suck it up and show your Professional Tour Guide face to the paying customers. His comment did elicit my offer to withdraw my objection and withdraw from the tour if I receive a FULL refund of my shitload of dollars. He promised us that he would call the bosses in the morning and would let us know what they said.

Dinner was at the hotel buffet. It sucked and I found myself wishing for a paladar.

The hotel has Wi-Fi, but does NOT have any of the cards for sale that one needs for access. SHEESH! Yes, I'm on holiday, but there are a few loose ends to tie up at home and a few things I forgot to buy that I can't buy in VN, so it would help if I could get on-line.

Stay with me, please... it gets to be fun, the food gets better, and I calm way the f*ck down.