Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Border and Beyond

The Mexico/Texas border was the only thing on my mind as I rode north. Passing through Tampico I changed lanes without using my turning signal and perhaps got too close to the truck ahead. This precipitated an ad hoc meeting with the local traffic police that were following somewhere behind me. I tried asking them for a warning for this minor traffic offense. They tried to put the squeeze on me, saying the office where the fine would be paid was closed and that I would have to spend the night. My answer, “Ok.” They demurred, suggesting that $100 (USD) would solve everything. Calmly and with resolve I replied, “I don’t take care of problems like this on the side of the road.” The officer gazed into the distance, smiled weakly knowing he wasn’t going to get a bribe from me and handed my license back to me. Thanks Paul Stewart for sharing that you refuse to pay bribes.
With hours to ride before reaching the frontier, nothing but refueling and police check points would stop me. Nothing but a beautiful sunset over a lake, with mountains in the distance.
In 2009 I took this same route with Tom and John. The difference was less construction north of Tampico and a three hour delay fixing a flat. Just north of Tampico I heard a loud scratching sound and saw my right pannier coasting to a stop behind me. I had failed to properly secure the locking mechanism, again. Luckily the net cargo bungee hung on long enough for me to notice the sound of pulling the pannier or I might have gone further without notice. There are some curious “hero scratches” on the underside of the pannier.  Now I was facing sunset with hours to go to the border. I pressed on into the Mexican night, arriving in Matamoros after midnight, I checked into a “love hotel” for 8 hours. The hotels are cheaper on the Mexico side of the border and I had some souvenir shopping to do in the morning.
The next day I crossed into the USA without incident. There was more than a touch of apprehension fueled by travels to Cuba, but the questions asked at the border weren’t extensive and soon I was rolling north to San Antonio. At the Horizons Unlimited meeting in the fall of 2012 I met Andy Tiegs, who put me up in San Antonio. Now I would be stopping to see him and sharing stories from the road. Andy was meeting friends for happy hour and I set off to met him there. “Twin Peaks” is the name of the bar/restaurant, which made me think of David Lynch and his dark TV series. Wrong. Think Hooters, Texas style. Ahhh, its good to be back home.
The following morning we joined his motorcycle club for breakfast, where they plan weekend rides and generally shoot the shit about all thing on two wheels.
There were lots of questions about my trip, which I gladly answered. I was invited to join the club on a ride through the Texas hill country. My schedule wouldn’t allow it and I had to decline. The conversations moved out to the parking lot. That is Andy standing the left and an authentic cowboy hat on the ride side.

One of Andy’s friends is gearing up to make a short cowboy movie. The expected length is 20 minutes. He was gathering rifles which would be used as props. The truck of the car quickly filled with guns, then the back seat. It seems everyone in Texas has a gun. When I asked about the propensity of guns, there was group chorus that guns were carried everywhere, and with a smile they said they carry guns, “Just in case.”
Don’t mess with Texas…or gun toting Texans!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

North from Mexico City, DF

Ingrid flew back home and I had the afternoon to find a new rear tire. The adventure motorcyclist website has a community section where travelers can reach out to locals for advice. I sent a message to the Mexico City mailing list, asking for advice on where to get a new rear tire. Within hours I received messages from locals, some general advice and some mentioned specific stores. The later was what I was looking for and shortly after checking out of our hotel I made my way to Moto House. After consulting with the clerk I picked out a Bridegestone tire and went up the street to have it mounted. Within two hours I was on my way to Tuxpan, a town I had stopped in with John and Tom while riding north through Mexico in 2009.
Leaving Mexico City I hit a little rain, but it soon passed. The bigger problem were both hands cramping. I had taken a few days off riding and my fingers were not back in the swing of things. I had to pry my fingers straight on both hands for the next two hours. By early evening I reach Tuxpan, four hours of road time, but more like six or seven on the road.
Fullscreen capture 632013 12121 PM
The following day I was determined to reach the US/Mexican border before stopping. On route the road had other plans for me. Somewhere south of Tampico I noticed an asphalt ridge in the road was making my ride squirrelly. At first I thought the ridge I was crossing over was taller than I thought, cause my rear tire to wobble a bit. A mile or two later I decided to stop for gas and as I slowed down I realized the rear tire was flat or very low. Finding the air compressor and adding air only revealed a hole in the tire. Air being pumped in was coming out the hole in equal measure.
In Mexico you don’t have to go far before finding a tire repair service. I had to wait while the guy fixed a truck tire. He had problems seating the tire, so I bought him a soda, took the tire off bike and got lunch.
While waiting for the tire to be un-mounted and a fresh inter tube installed, a truck pulled up and a small crew of guys hung flags for political party.
Eventually the truck tire ahead of me was fixed and mounted. Within a half an hour a new inter tube was installed and the tire was up back on the motorcycle. The whole deal chewed up 2 or 3 hours. It was a good break and interesting/curious to see new political flags being installed. The rest stop would come in handy as I rode until after midnight to Matamoros and the US border.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Yucatán Peninsula Scrabble

To meet Ingrid in Mexico City I had to cover 1020 miles in two and a half days. I had my work cut out for me. First stop, the Customs facility southwest of Chetumal. Importation papers in hand, I set my sights on Cordoba. 664 miles to the west.Mexico route from Cancun


Cordoba Centro

15 hours of travel later, I reached Cordoba around 1:00 AM and went to the center of town and free Wifi. Next stop, a “love hotel” where I could get a room by the hour.

6-7 hours of sleep and I was on the road to Mexico City, where Ingrid was flying in just after twelve noon. I found the hotel after stopping for directions a few times and settled in.

bed panorama

The next few days days we went to several museums, fine art and archeological, and great food. Had to replace my motorcycle battery (still under warranty!, but I have to take it home to NJ) and buy a new rear tire…

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Dropping Anchor Cancun

The sail from Cienfuegos,Cuba took four nights. We reached Cancun near sunrise and anchored at the Isla Mujeres marina. Isla Mujeres is an island just off the coast of Cancun.
After breakfast Mexican Immigrations stopped at the boat and processed our tourist cards. We waited for customs to arrive and inspect the boat, but that near happened, so the bikes were unloaded and we went to the ferry.

There was some confusion regarding the immigrations officials, which kept us waiting on the boat. Ultimately the motorcycles were unloaded and we left for the ferry. It turned out the confusion revolved around immigrations delivery our receipt for the tourist card. As the ferry passed the Stalhratte, the crew scrabbled onto the dingy and raced to pull up along side the ferry boat. The crew handed off the receipts to my out stretched hand and that was it. We had our receipts, which I didn't think would ever be needed...until I was asked for mine the next day.
IMG_5251Leaving Isla Mujeres by ferry for Cancun
I was on a schedule to meet Ingrid in Mexico City and eager to complete the importation of the motorcycle into Mexico. Speaking with people on the ferry I learned that the customs office would be closed by the time the ferry docked. Plan B emerged. Ride about 5 hours south to Chetumal and the frontier of Belize, process the importation paperwork there. The tricky part was riding 5 hours without official importation papers. I rolled the dice and  headed south. Luck was with me and I did not encounter any checkpoints or get stopped by police. The next day I went to brand new Mexican Customs facility at the Belize border and left with my importation papers. Now the ride to Mexico City, with no time to waste.

Broken, Damaged, Lost and Stolen

On my first trip in 2008-2009 through Central America, I lost a flash light. On the longer trip 2012-2013 trip through Central and South America, and the sojourn through Jamaica and Cuba, the list is dramatically longer. Over 35,000 miles and 9 months things break, a few things were lost, others were broken or damaged, and sadly a small number of items are presumed stolen. I can only shrug and consider the cost for the list below as part of the price of a great adventure.

I am asked frequently how well the F800GS held up. Considering the number of miles and the road conditions, I would say the durability of the motorcycle was good and its over all performance was more than satisfactory.
  • Motorcycle chain separated (mended with basic tools in the countryside of Bolivia)
  • Oil heat exchange (tagged by a rock, replaced in Buenos Aires, AR)
  • Broken tooth on front sprocket (replaced in San Paulo, BR, along with back sprocket and chain.)
  • Battery replaced (Mexico city, MX) (on home bound leg)
  • (1) flat tire, deployed a spare inner tube, flat occurred on last riding day in Mexico (on home bound leg)
The original laptop died in Brazil, perhaps due to a conflict in the configuration. I set the laptop to “hibernate” mode, but did not wait for the process to complete before closing the lid. The laptop was configured to go into “sleep” mode when the lid was closed. The theory is that the two processes running at the same time while I traveled caused the motherboard to burn out.
  • Burned out laptop motherboard (replaced with new laptop)
  • A/C power adapter plug damaged falling off couch at Horizons Unlimited Travel Meeting (replaced)
The Garmin 550 was six years old when I left home and failed in Texas. Garmin replaced the unit with a refurbished unit when I went home for a visit midway through the trip. Six years is of service is reasonable and Garmin’s program to replace the unit for $150 (USD) fair. Later I attempted to wire a Nuvi 200 directly to the battery before reviewing the voltage specification.
  • Zumo 550 G.P.S. touch screen failure (replaced under Garmin refurbished program)
  • Nuvi 200 burnt out after making the poor decision to wire directly to motorcycle battery (duh)
  • Panniers beat-up from multiple drops (hammered out)
  • Day backpack, ripped up under back wheel, Baracoa, Cuba, 1/2 dozen mangos crushed at same time.
  • Windshield cracked in multiple pieces, no traction due to strip of oil on street, temporary repair with clear packing tape
  • Custom ear buds (lost on the road to Punta la Flor, Nicaragua)
  • Panasonic ear buds (lost somewhere in Brazil)
  • Nikon P7100, left in taxi (Havana, Cuba) with fanny pack and scarf from San Blas Islands
  • Garmin Zumo 550, lost along the train line to Machu Picchu, Peru
  • Power strip, lost in guest house, Port Antonio, Jamaica
  • Camera battery charger, fell out of fanny pack, Port Antonio, Jamaica
  • Jean Paul Gautier swimming trunks, left in guest house shower, Port Antonio, Jamaica (these designer swimming trunks were bough years ago at an amazing discount.)
  • 1.75 liter fuel bottle and ~10 large bottles of water, all slipped out of bungee cords “attachment”…my design was later improved and further loss prevented.
  • Polo eyeglasses, left on tank bag during a break, near Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
  • Versace eyeglasses, left in taxi going to airport, Buenos Aires, AR
  • Ear buds at municipal beach, stolen from backpack by one of the guys I was hanging out with on the beach, Lima, Peru
  • Garmin 660, stolen from backpack stored in bus station office (Chile)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Twinkle Toes

I think it happened in Venezuela, while walking down the mountain from Angel Falls. In that days that followed, it felt like I had sand in my shoes, but that wasn't the case. The theory is that my "water runner" sneakers didn't keep my feet in place. Hiking down the steep trail my toes pressed into the toe box of the sneakers, putting pressure on the toes and the balls of my feet. Sustained pressure like this causes nerve trauma. The effected area loses sensation.

Salar de Uyuni

The tips of several toes and the balls of both feet became numb. I was concerned that the problem was rated to my back. I pulled a muscle on the second day of the trip while lifting the bike onto the center stand. Even with several visits to chiropractors and a Raki massage, the back injury would haunt me for the length of the trip...but that is another story.

There are several doctors in my family. I was able to contact my cousin Philip when traveling in Brazil. He recommended that I consult a neurologist to rule out any problems that might be related to my spine. In Buenos Aires I got a recommendation from my friend Pablo. The doctor tested my feet and legs, ruling out spinal complications. I was relieved, because a spinal problem would end the trip and potentially my motorcycle riding.

There is a second theory to the nerve trauma. The vibration from the motorcycle engine that travels to the foot pegs and transfers to the boots, might have been sufficient. I lean toward poorly fitting sneaker as the root cause. Gentle readers with knowledge or experience of numb are encouraged to squeak up.

It's now over six months later and to my relief, most of the feeling has return to my toes and the balls of my feet have nearly completely recovered. If the feeling had not improved, I was resigned to losing some sensation in my toes like climbers of Mount Everest sacrifice toes in exchange for a great adventure.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Closed for Funeral

It's Friday, the day before we are scheduled to leave Cienfegous, Cuba. The morning was dedicated to surrendering our Cuban motorcycle license and provisional license plate.

One side of my temporary Cuban drivers license 
The six Stahlratte passengers with motorcycles arrived at Transito to complete the process, only to find that the whole facility was closed for a funeral. We are told the office will reopen Monday morning.

The guard at Transito said he would make some phone calls when he went off duty at 9:30 AM. Werner and I returned to the marina to inform Captain Ludwig of the situation and hope he could get aduana (custom) official to work on a solution from their end.

A three day delay will wreck my plans for meeting my wife in Mexico City. As it is I have to ride more than 1000 miles in two days to meet Ingrid when she arrived in Mexico. If we do not leave Cuba until Monday, then Ingrid will visit Mexico City without me.

Needing to change the motorcycle oil, I rode 10 minutes back to my casa, near the marina. As I was starting the oil change word came to me that Transito had opened for us. Too late to stop, so I continued and joined the group 20 minutes later. The timing was perfect for me, as they had just finished all of the other bikes and processed mine. Everyone's bike was ready, except Werner's. It failed to start this morning and he went to Transito with his license plate and papers, hoping they would process his motorcycle without seeing it. No chance. Werner didn't want to tow the bike and he didn't have enough money (or time!) to have a truck transport the bike. Of course, Transito refused to go to the marina and inspect his bike. He was sick the day before and not feeling well, so he sat and sat in the Tranito office waiting for them to provide a solution. Word got to him from the Captain that the boat would leave the next day, with him or without him. Werner finally agreed to let his wife Claudia tow his motorcycle. Fortunately Transito remained open until he arrived...

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


I spent some time riding round Trinidad before heading west. On the south side of town I found a vegetable stand, with the colors I had been keeping an eye out for sometime.

I took quite a while to get the above picture. Local men were hanging around the counter, cluttering the picture. I took a few photographs with them, then waited for the leave. These guys had no where to go, so I gently asked them to step to the side, which they agreed. As I was getting ready to go one of the hombres said I should pay something for taking them picture. I quickly replied that I was a famous photographer and that they should pay me.

I could not get enough of the vintage cars in Cuba. The reason there are so many is directly tied to the embargo and the abundance is a raw product of necessity, not choice. The fact that so many are still running is a testament to the ingenuity and perseverance of the Cuban people.

The beach is a short ride due south from Trinidad. The map showed a resort, no doubt designed for tourists. I had no interest is visiting a tourist zone, preferring to see the day to day places instead. I stopped along the road long enough to take a panorama of the seaside. After days of being inland I had visions of floating in the salt water, but in the end decided to ride on without swimming.

Edging my way west along the coastline, a church appeared. Gotta love the yellow color.

The ride towards Cienfuegos was uneventful. The coast road revealed a memorial to a political leader. I hardly paused before riding away. Being on the road for months was wearing on me and my time in Cuba was taking its toll. I stopped at the Jardín Botánico de Cienfuegos to get my bearing and confirm that  I was headed in the right direction. Indeed I was only a short distance from Cienfuegos. The stopped turned into a long conversation with a park worker. As always there were a lot of questions about the motorcycle and my trip. Then I had a chance to ask the guy about his impressions of Cuba. He spoke about the low salaries, joking, "they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work." I asked about the five Cubans that are imprisoned in the US. There are many billboards in Cuba calling for their release and labeling their case as an injustice. What was this about? He explained that they were caught in the US after engaging in some spying activities. When I reflected that when people are put in jail for spying, then the case isn't really unjust. He agreed...  The story is presented on Wikipedia: Miami 5 On April 22, 2013, René González was paroled and allowed to return to Cuba for his father's funeral. A federal judge allowed him to stay in Cuba if he renounced his US citizenship, which he did. Ultimately I did not visit the gardens, as I was low on funds and energy.

The next stop marked the last city that I would visit in Cuba. I rode over 1,800 miles in the 27 days on the island, visiting the country nearly tip to tip.

Next stop, Cienfuegos and locating the Stahlratte.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Rain, Birds and Sore Ribs

Ten minutes to reach Trinidad and the rain was starting to saturate my riding gear. There was no compelling reason to press on and an approaching bus shelter was calling my name. With a poucho draped over my semi waterproof duffel bag, I joined locals under the bus shelter. There was a motorcycle and another motorcycle with a side car taking refuse in the shelter. There was a cake stored in the eves of the bus shelter, for safekeeping during the down pour.

Having gotten short sleep the night before I wasn't in the mood to answer the typical questions that came from my rainy day companions, but I managed a few simple answers. As the rain let up I was asked where I was going, then I was asked where I was staying. I replied that I would find a place when I got to Trinidad, and that I was looking for a  room sporting a low rate. A guy was called over to the shelter and he gave me a gave me a business card with the typical contact information and a picture of the building. The guy assured me the rate 15 CUC and that there was parking. I said I would look at it. Soon I was back on the road to Trinidad.

My standard operating procedure when reaching a town is to drive through it, get the far side of town the double back and select a place that looks good and is in a good location. The picture on the business card made finding the casa particular easy. It was just outside of the center of town and being tired I wasn't in the mood to be in the center of town with the usual activities.

A teenager girl answered the door and confirmed the rate. Yes, breakfast is included, air conditioning and a hot water shower. I slept on a few really bad beds in Columbia and Peru, and started testing the bed to make sure it is not horrible. Everything about the room was satisfactory; I am home for the night.

The girl took my passport to fill out the registration book, promising to return in15 minutes. About that amount of time lapsed and there was a knock on the door. Expecting to find a teenager I was surprised to greet the same man, Jose, that I met at the bus shelter. It turned out that he owned the casa particular. All I could do was laugh in surprise.

Jose had come to see if I needed dinner. He listed beef, fish and.I had my fill of langoustine over the past few weeks. Knowing the price would be low, I declined, opting to get two small grilled ham sandwiches, glasses of limon refresco and cream de leche ice cream
in the center of town. It was the perfect light snack and the price for food in the small window counter joint is priced with Cuban National Peso. Altogether the food was less that one dollar. A larger sit down meal offered at the casa would be priced on CUC currency and the cost would run between 8 and 12 CUC. The "street food" selection is limited, but the prices can't be beat.

The next morning a typical Cuban breakfast of juice, fruit, cheese, bread, eggs and coffee was served to me on the second floor terrace.

While eating breakfast, I noticed a pidgin coop on the roof across the street. I believe I saw a flight of homing pidgins flying over Trinidad moments later. Birds are popular pets in Cuba. Many times I have seen people walk down the street with bird cages. I guess they like to take their birds with them when visiting friends. This was the first time I came to realize Cubans keep pidgins as well as song birds.

After breakfast I headed into the center of Trinidad and soon bumped into Claudia and Werner, fellow passengers from the Stalhratte. After catching up with them, they left for the mountain road to Cienfegous and I went to get a photo of Trinidad's historic cathedral.

I got the shot of the cathedral and stepped off a ledge on the perimeter of the plaza than I was not expecting to step off. Spinning around as I fell, I protected the digital camera, and slammed by ribs into the edge of ledge. This was my first time I really hurt my ribs. Did I crack them? I will never know because all a doctor can do is up tape on the chest and perhaps prescribe pain killers. I am writing this post 14 days later and without a sympathy gathering bruise, the pain is starting to subside.

Leaving Trinidad

Monday, May 13, 2013

Night Swimming

The day with spent with my adopted Cuban family. Most of the day we sat on the porch in the shade to escape the heat. Cubans are incredibly self-reliant and resourceful. Things like beer can get thrown in the trash, which I later learned are recovered by people that sort the trash somewhere down the line. Any piece of milled lumber is reused somewhere, somehow. Plastic bags are washed, dried and reused. Before seeing plastic bags being recycled in Cuba, I thought the Pennsylvania Dutch (the Amish) were the only people to clean and reuse plastic bags.

The family had a small room off the kitchen that housed a medium sized pig. The pig eat all the food scraps generated by the extended family. I called the pig "Mr. Tocino" or Mr. Bacon.

I ventured out a few times to get a haircut. Ultimately discovering the barber only kept morning hours. My other quest was to find oil for the motorcycle. It is recommended that that oil and filter be changed every 6000 miles, and it was time. There are many signs advertising Castrol oil, but the shelves were bare of this brand. Cuban "Multi Oil" was the only product available. Checking my luggage at the casa particular returned no oil filter. When leaving the Stahratte in Santiago de Cuba I didn't think I would put so many miles on the bike while in Cuba, so I left them on bolard the boat. An oil change would wait until I got to Cienfuegos when I could retrieve a filter from item left in my bunk. Back at the house Hymen worked on his bicycle, replacing the ball barrings in his back wheel.

Alexander went out at one point and bought beer for everyone. I had been picking up the beer tab at an alarming frequency, so it was nice that someone else sprung for the brews. As a tourist it is expected you pay for everything from taxis to rounds of drinks. There is a disappointing part to funding the various events. Rarely does anyone say "thank you." It is not clear to me if that lack of acknowledgment for the tourist's largess is a characteristic of Latin culture, uncultivated manners in the economically challenged or embarrassment at receiving gift giving from someone who is much more fortunate. Perhaps the sentiments s based on a simple expectation that the person with more shares automatically and the act of giving has no special merit. Perhaps I'll meet a sociologist one day and learn how the social rules and morays are structured.

In the evening we went swimming in an Olympic sized pool down the street. With beer, a bottle of rum, a package of cookies, two dogs and the ubiquitous Cuban cigarettes. I was concerned there would be a charge to enter the swimming pool. Tourist always pay and I left the house without a peso in my pocket. The situation was quickly revealed when we reached the closed pool. The large metal gate was not locked and there was no night guard. This is Cuba. The pool is owned by the people and that night some of the people were going swimming.

Oddly the pool was up a flight of stairs. We climbed one flight of stairs and a huge pool was revealed, replete with swimming lanes. There were no lights, so we swam under the stars. Or in Spanish the estrellas, which sounds very close to the name of the country Australia. Sorry, no lights, no photos...

Soon the boys were in the watered followed by the dogs. Of the two dogs, Lassie turned out to be natural water dog. She jumped into the water quickly and paddled around happily. Even though her legs were too short to climb out of the pool un assisted, she jumped in again and again. I guess she had a lot of faith in her owners; that hey would not let her drown, Her daughter, Mutty, was a reluctant swimmer, only jumping in once or twice the whole night.

Mutty, the non-water dog...
As with swimming everywhere the ladies were the last to take the plunge. The rum bottle was passed from hombre to hombre and the girls stuck to beer. Sneaking into an Olympic size pool at night, with dogs, beer and rum. Only in Cuba. Returning to the house for warm food, we finished the night with rounds of dominos.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Dias de la Madre

May 12th is Mother's Day in Cuba. I met a Cuban family and was invited to celebrate Mothers Day. Cubans go to visit their mother late in the evening the day before and wait for the clock to reach midnight to be with their mother from the first moment. It is like waiting for the clock to strike 12:00 midnight on New Years Eve. Except everyone kisses their mother and there was no champagne. Beer was the drink of the night.

That night, on the walk back to my casa particular, the power for the city when out. The lights went dark and suddenly the stars lit the sky. It was a short walk to the rented room and the owner was waiting with a candle to illuminate my room. Not long after the power was restored...and the air conditioning came on.

On Mother's Day people line up at the bakery to buy a cake. You can see people carrying cakes down the street everywhere.

Even a neighbor stopped by with a piece of cake and best wishes for the matriarch of the family. The whole family stops by to wish "felices días" (happy days) to their mother.

Grandmother Resina rocks her grandson to sleep on Mother's Day.

It would have been possible, but difficult to get the motorcycle up a large curb and turn into a secure porch at the casa. So I stored my motorcycle in the family's backyard. When I return to their house on Mother's Day I discovered that Rafael had washed the bike. There was a serious layer of crud around the chain and on the wheels. I was knocked out by his care for my motorcycle.

In the evening someone nearby launched a small display of fireworks. We finished the night watching HBO and playing dominos.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Westward in Cuba

The state of Pinar del Rio is tobacco country. I left Havana and headed west for the city of Pinar del Rio, but left immediately for Viales and a reach for the beach. A few hours later I could only find a marina with a very expensive hotel. Back tracking to Viales was my only choice, where casa particulars are plentiful.

The casa owner provided directions to the beach. If course the directions were different than the route taken the day before. Minutes from Viales there is a mural painted on the side of a mountain. The painting is attributed to Diego Rivera. Later I heard the work was made by one of his students. With few exceptions there are charges to enter any attraction in Cuba. In this case the fee is 3 CUC. Those that pay the fee can access the interpretive center. Experience told me that presentations in these centers are almost always in Spanish. Sometimes there are abbreviated descriptions in English, but rarely. The full mural can be seen from outside, so I declined paying the fee and took a photo from road, then headed to the beach.

The beach is a short ride, about 40 minutes. After paying a 5 CUC fee to enter the playa, the road crosses a causeway to the beach. It is a touristic playa, with a restaurant, bar, beach chairs and small shaded "cabanas." Snorkeling equipment and sea kayaks are available to rent. A bathroom, changing room and shower completes the services. The water was amazing, clear and warm.

Over the course of the day buses arrived with tourists and locals. I talked to a three French people vacationing in Cuba. They are students in Mexico and took a break from their studies They said coming to Cuba was very an economical place to vacation.

A troop of locals showed up and took over the beach.The beach goers provided wonderful entertainment for the length of the day.

Back in Viales for that night, some of the ladies appeared at a bars, as dancers performing between the sets provided by a band.

Cigars and American Taxis Cars

The next few days were spent exploring Havana. Navigating the streets of Cuba’s capital has its challenges. The map given to me by a car rental agency lack a high level of detail and many of the streets don’t have signage. On the upside, Cuban drivers are good and many of the major intersections have signs. It is possible to get around the city, but equally easy to get lost. I found the major attractions and historical sites without a problem.

Cuba is well known for cigars. It is hard to walk down any street in a tourist area without getting several offers to buy cigars. Every offer has a story attached about how the person knows someone in a cigar factory and how their price is very good. Some of them may in fact have the real thing, but I wouldn’t bother trying to save a few dollars only to get fakes. For the present, I’ll buy individual boxes of Kohiba “Mini”, cigarette size cigars. The locals buy individual cigars and sampling them is definitely on the list.


Towards the end of my stay in Cuba, depending on how much cash is left, I will start buying small boxes of cigars and roll the dice with US Customs. Expenses are always a tough thing to manage as I hop from country to country, so I usually wait until I am almost ready to leave a country before I start buying souvenirs. Given the complex Cuban currencies and the inability to access my bank U.S. accounts, managing money takes on new dimensions in vigilance.

The other offer that is omnipresent when walking in the tourist areas of Havana comes from taxi drivers. There are three types: regular taxis, bicycle taxis and “American Car taxis.” The last is a specialty driven by the U.S. government’s trade embargo of Cuba. There is a huge fleet of vintage cars in various states of repair. Many are in remarkable shape given the challenges the owners have getting parts and supplies to maintain their vehicles. Many spew black smoke from their exhaust. I assume the piston rings on their engines are worn out and repair is out of reach. I heard the pitch dozens of times. “You want a American Car taxi my friend?”


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Bella arte

Havana has many exciting places to enjoy and interesting historic sites to visit. There are monu
ments, government buildings, museums and of course lots of music. The Musuo Nacional de Belle Artes is an unexpected surprise. If you like modern art, I highly recommend this museum.

The collocation is dedicated solely to modern art by Cuban artists. The art is chock full of symbolic themes: sex, family, death, political, to name a few. The first gallery presents works that could have been made by Picasso or cubist artist. There is a sizable collection of sculpture and mixed media arts. Little to no photography. Most of photography is found as elements in larger works.

Photography is prohibited in the museum. I could not resist and sneaked this photo. There were so many pieves of art work that I wanted to photograph, but didn't want to get kicked out  of the museum...

These sculptures are installed in front of the museum.

I love this group of sculptures, a celebration of various screw driver bits -- in brick! How cool is that.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Captain Ludwig on Land and the Money Exchange Game

Captain Ludwig had anchored in Cienfuegos a few days earlier and drove to Havana where his wife Elisa and baby daughter had flown in from Cartagena. We met at at the famous Coppelia for ice cream. 
(Wikipedia photo)

Cuban nationals pay 15 National Pesos (~$.75) for a large serving of ice cream and tourist sit in a separate area where they paid considerably more, about $3.00 USD.

In Cartagena I offered to take photos of Ludwig’s family, but there wasn’t enough time. My Nikon battery charger had gone missing in Jamaica leaving only the iPhone to take pictures. Fortunately Ludwig had a camera, so I took a series of pictures of the baby and the proud parents. When I saw Ludwig a few weeks later in Centrifuges I asked him to send me a copy of the favorite photo that I took. It would never happen. In Havana he lost a backpack in a taxi that mostly contained clothes, but also had the digital camera.

[Update: I just heard from Captain Ludwig and learned that his wife, Elisa, had download the photos to her laptop before that camera was lost in a taxi! Below find the photo they shared with me.]

In need of CUCs, the “convertible currency” I headed to Western Union, a short walk from the ice cream plaza. Of the money I needed to exchange, a 100 Euro bill had a half an inch tear. Western Union would not exchange the torn bill, so I was forced to seek out an international bank, Bano Financial International (BFI.) It was too late in the day to find an open BFI bank. The next day I would find one near my casa particular. The bank exchanged the torn bill, but charged a 1 CUC "commission", roughly $1.00 USD. Later in the trip another branch would charge one half a CUC per bill to exchange two $20.00 USD bills with small tears and to my surprise, they agreed to exchange a $20.00 USD bill that looked like a mouse had chewed a hole in the middle.

It is impossible to withdraw money from a US bank account using a Cuban ATM or get a cash  advance from a US based credit card. US citizens have to take stack of cash with them into Cuba. It is best to take Euros into the country, because the Cuban banks take off an additional 10% to exchange USD. Ouch. If you have an account for a Canadian, European, or any bank outside of the USA, then getting cash from an ATM is not a problem...

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Our Man in Havana

May 1st is International Worker’s Day, a huge day on the socialist calendar. My Swedish friends from the Stahlratte, Aba and Eric, were planning to be in Havana to hear President Raul Castro speak. I made plans to meet them, the day before or at a specific spot in the Plaza de la Revolution.
I arrived in Havana the night before the big event and stopped at a hotel were they were to leave their address. No luck after multiple times visiting the hotel. Either I got the hotel wrong or they didn’t make it to Havana as planned. Plan B, look for them during the rally under the “statue of Che”, but again no luck. In fact the portrait of Che attached to the side of a building was blocked off, so no one could actually wait there.
President Raul Castro would be speaking very early, perhaps at 7:00 AM. I left my hotel at 6:15 AM and followed the crowd to the plaza. Unfortunately the mass of people that I was with was held on a side street until it was time for that group to parade in front of the monument, so I missed Raul’s speech.  I wouldn’t have understood it anyway. The idea was to simply be in the crowd and feel the energy. After waiting for 30 minutes I walked out of the crowded street that I squeezed through earlier and went two blocks further west to get into the main thoroughfare that was moving. Of course when I got to the street that was held by guards, it was released and moving along the parade route…
All the big names of Cuban socialism were championed: Che, Fidel, Raul, even Hugo Chaves. 
The crowd became increasingly more excited at we neared the monument to Marti and President Raul Castro’s position.

 Raul is that tiny speck directly under Marti’s head. I waived to Raul and I am pretty sure me waived back to me.  =)

The parade ended with military and civic groups carrying large flags and fields flags.