Wednesday, February 28, 2007

the new bean on the block

I'm going to be an uncle.

Congrats Jo and Craig.

love dan

Too many CUCs spoil the broth

Fresh off the plane, tourists arriving in Cuba are ripe for the picking. Jam packed with Euros, Dollars and Pounds, the initial confusion on which money plays Jesus in this country can embarrass, confuse and eventually lead you into trouble. Especially when there is two official local currencies floating about. In a tit for tat political decision back in 2003, Fidel announced that after ten years of being legal tender, the US Dollar would no longer be something people could use as money. Instead, a new currency, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), would take the dollar’s place as the De Niero for foreigners and the Cubans more equal than others. Like the money used by Cubans, the Peso Cubano, the CUC is still not able to be bought or sold anywhere but Cuba, but is roughly indexed to the Euro. At the moment it’s equal to about 24 Peso Cubano for every 1 CUC. Both currencies are called Peso, both use the $ symbol as denominator, some of the notes and coins have a slight resemblance to each other (such as the 3 Peso Cubano coin and the 1 CUC coin), and the confusion between the two is played on by the tourist industry to fuck visitors royally.

My first night in Cuba was a learning experience and a great introduction to the economy lurking in the shadows cast by tourists.

Landing at Varadero airport at 7pm on a hot night, immigration consisted of ten large queues and small confined booths with angry looking police types stationed at each one. While chatting to them about all things Austrian, I began to read the immigration rules set out in big friendly letters. The obvious stuff was all there (valid passport, visa, plane ride out), but the final condition was to have already booked a hotel and show evidence of such a booking. Hmm. This was going to be difficult, as I had intended on grabbing a Casa Particular (a rented room within someone’s house), once I arrived. I looked over the shoulders of the Austrians at what they had written on their tourist cards. “The Ingletaria”. Sounds good. I scribbled that don on my form and continued waiting in line. Their immigration process involves you going into a small space with a dude behind a counter asking questions about your purpose for visiting the country. There is no window or open door looking out into the side of immigration which is where tourists want to be, and the only view you have is from where you came. So if you fail the test, the electric door doesn’t open, you do not pass go and you do not collect your luggage. I managed to get through the questions, the dude pressed the button and the electric door opened. I grabbed my luggage and just like back home it went through an x-ray unit just to make sure I wasn’t smuggling in any metal device used to topple governments.

My capitalistic sensibilities said to change a minimal amount of Euro into local currency at the airport and then wait until I could get to a bank to get a better exchange rate. I changed 50 Euro into Cuban Peso Convertables, the money used by tourists now the US dollar was outlawed. With a gauntlet of bus operators, taxi drivers and house owners offering their services at inflated prices to the jet lagged, I was overwhelmed by the options, but I quickly found a bus to share to Matanzas with four Greek guys who were going to Havana. The ride cost 25 CUC, and when we stopped off in Matanzas for my let out point (and a beer), the Greek guys suggested it might be easier to get accommodation in Central Havana, another 80kms away. Looking around the uninviting looking Matanzas, I decided to take them up on the idea.

More soon...

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Dos Mondos

Cuba is over.

What would have to be the most vigorous, eventful travel I have ever done, it is not a country for the faint hearted. Sure, you could just go there, lay on a beach and not see a thing of the country, but I burn easy and like to know a bit more about a country than just ordering drinks at a bar.

At times it was one of the most beautiful, relaxed, friendly, cheap and heart-warming countries I’ve ever visited. Other times it was the complete opposite. The gap between the rich and poor.. Sorry Fidel.. the equal and the more equal, is astonishing. In the rural towns where tourists rarely visit, the Fidel brand of communism seems to work. People are happy. They don’t have the constant reminder of the outside world giving them the perception that if only they could buy stuff then they would be free. For the majority of tourists, the Cuba they interact with is a fa├žade, a sham, a romantic ideal. The old cars, the music, the cigars, the rum and Cuba Libre come at the cost of choking fumes, culture whoring, lung cancer, blindness and lethargy.

A little housekeeping.

As the internet in Cuba was difficult to access, I will be putting up my photos and blog entries along side fresh stuff about current adventures in Mexico.

20 February 2007

Did you know that two people flying on a return plane trip from Europe to America produce the same amount of carbon emissions as an average western household does in an entire year? Wrap your middle class guilt around that one ladies and germs.

I think I just used up all my bike riding credits getting here.

I took a flight at the butt crack of dawn from Dublin to Frankfurt (that was a fun jog with full pack to the airport bus, which stayed parked for another 15 minutes), stayed with a German couple who rode bikes from Mexico to the southern most tip of Argentina over the course of a year. Shit. A new challenge. I took the opportunity to look around the central part of the city, which I had seen 8 months earlier. Interesting to see the difference the World Cup made to town. No colossal TV screen floating in the river, no swarms of people wearing their country’s colours, no massive edifices erected in honour of buck toothed ball warriors. A normal little German city. The hunt continued for the out of print Cycling Cuba, a Lonely Planet guide book which I’ve bought for two friends previously in an effort to encourage them to do something stupid with me. Evidently it didn’t work and now I was headed to Cuba on a solo mission. The closest I got to a book about cycling Cuba was a German language book called Radfarren ein Kuba, but that would be as much help to me as a fart in a bath. I gave up searching for the book and enjoyed a meal at an organic vegetarian place I had discovered last time I was there. I had heard it was best to bring Euro in small denominations to Cuba, and while buying a bigger memory card for my MP3 player I got some change. It was only after I got back to where I was staying that I realised the girl at the check out had given me 70 Euro too much. I seem to be having a bit of luck with free money of late. In Dublin, a bank exchanged 25 Pounds for Euro as if it was 40 Pounds and in London, I found 20 Pounds on Camden Road, but then blew it on a ridiculously long scarf (jelly baby?).

I got back to the flat and my host’s had cooked up a fantastic dinner. The following day was all about getting to the airport and flying to Cuba. At the airport, I got to the check in desk and they told me I should present them with an actual ticket. Having done it all online I had no such thing and had to go check my email to grab booking numbers and reservation codes. My headphones finally gave up the ghost and I bought a fresh pair in Duty Free. Not sure exactly how Duty Free works these days. From what I remember, things are supposed to be cheaper than they are elsewhere, but when buying anything at an airport I get the same feeling as when I go to buy a chocolate bar at a cinema. I passed several book shops all offering multiple, shiny copies of the Cuba Lonely Planet, but I had it in my mind that I would just grab Annick’s copy when she left and return it when I got back to Ireland.

The flight was fairly uneventful. Looking like human skin under a microscope, the clouds over the Atlantic were quite impressive. Chasing the sunset reminded of me of Russia and Finland, with dusk lasting a couple of hours. Looking out the window, I confused a bunch of clouds for the coast of Florida, but the orange glow of the sun reflecting off of the sea looked amazing. Just as the sun began to disappear, the lights of Miami, 200km away, began to illuminate the clouds. I tuned my radio into a few US radio station, all but one of them spouting something about Jesus. Coming into land, the long peninsular of Varadero, chock full of hotels and big spending tourists came into view. By all reports, this is not the place to go if you are a budget traveller, and here I was flying into the local airport.

We land and my month in Cuba begins.