Monday, August 31, 2009

Cuba, Part 2

Danielle and I decided to go to Cuba.

The risk involved did not deter our enthusiasm for the idea.

This was going to be my first trip outside the continental United States. I'd never even owned a passport, before. Hell of a first trip, I thought to myself.

I did a couple of days of thorough research with the goal of keeping us from going to jail or being charged a $10,000 fine by the U.S. government. My research showed that ignoring the embargo occasionally had its serious consequences.

This made Cuba even more alluring. After all...tons of Americans had been to the Paris and seen the Eiffel Tower, but CUBA?! that's an adventure!

I discovered that there were three "gateway cities" used by American citizens as pit stops on the way to Havana. They were: Montreal, Mexico City, and Cancun. The most popular of the three seemed to be Cancun so I chose that one. It was Spring Break, so we'd just blend in know...assuming we were being followed by the C.I.A.

Once we got to Cancun, I would do two important things:

1. I'd get twenty to thirty dollars worth of Mexican pesos, and tuck it into the guide book in case we had to bribe anyone on the way back.

2. I'd buy our roundtrip tickets from Cancun to Havana, in cash. No sense leaving a paper trail within the first six hours!

Danielle and I spent the next week sneaking up on each other, intermittently, and yelling, "CUBA!!!" The excitement about the trip grew, exponentially, with each passing day.

I bought a Lonely Planet guidebook on Cuba and read it, cover to cover. The preface to the book was funny...I'll paraphrase it: "We here at Lonely Planet are in no position, legally, to advise you to break U.S. law by traveling to Cuba. However, and this is very don't want to be a wuss, do you? DO IT, DO IT!!!"

I learned some interesting things from the Lonely Planet Cuba:

1. Many people in Havana (and elsewhere in Cuba) turned their homes into makeshift bed and breakfasts, called Casa Paticulares. This was a more interesting choice than a hotel, as you got to be part of someone's family for a short period of time, practice your Spanish, and pay $20 to $30 dollars, per night, for food and lodging. Not bad. Cuba was very cheap, if done this way. Hotels, on the other hand, usually started at around $70 to $80 U.S. dollars per night.

2. There were three operating currencies in Cuba: 1. The Cuban peso 2. The U.S. dollar and 3. Something called CUC's, or, Cuban convertibles, (which had a 1 to 1 relationship with the U.S. dollar), and was the predominant currency used by tourists. I was warned by the guidebook not to exchange any currency on the street, and to always do it at the bank. One of the reasons for this was the fact that currency exchange booths on the street would often try to take advantage of tourists' lack of knowledge and give you Cuban pesos in exchange for U.S. dollars which were worth far less than Cuban Convertibles or CUCs. In addition, it was nearly impossible for a non-Cuban to spend Cuban pesos at all! Therefore you had to brave the bank every time you needed an exchange, which I was warned could take half a day. Apparently, the banking system in Cuba had an entirely different sense of time than American banks, and a simple deposit of funds could be used as an opportunity to socialize for quite some time.

3. It could not be emphasized enough: if you lost your cash while in Cuba, you would be completely unable to obtain any funds or credit, so it was imperative to mind your belongings at all times. Keeping your passport in your front pocket wouldn't be a bad idea, either.

4. Do not, under any circumstances, drink the tap water.

5. Most hotels took U.S. dollars, so you probably wouldn't have to worry about converting your money immediately upon landing in Havana. far, so good.

We got everything ready in the week leading up to our departure date, and before we knew it, we were leaving for the airport.

Danielle and I took a flight to Houston, had an hour layover, and landed in Cancun.

As planned, we got our thirty dollars worth of Mexican pesos at the airport in Cancun, and headed over to the surprisingly small Cubana Airlines booth to purchase our plane tickets.

I approached the friendly looking Mexican lady at the counter.

"I'd like to buy two round trip tickets to Havana, please. The soonest flight you have."

I looked at the board above her.

The next flight was supposed to arrive in two hours.

"Yes sir...that flight is scheduled to arrive at 6pm. But just be aware that it may be very late. How would you like to pay?" she asked, pleasantly, as if the fact that the flight might be very late was of absolutely no consequence whatsoever.

"Cash. Why do you think it could be very late?" I probed, looking back at Danielle to see if she had heard.

"It's a Cuban plane, sir. Sometimes they arrive on time, and sometimes they arrive whenever they feel like it," she laughed.

Wow. Picture someone at American Airlines saying something like that!


"Yes, really. That will be $360.00."

"That's hilarious!" I said to Danielle, pulling out the cash, and noticing that she was highly amused by the warning as well. It didn't bother her. We were on vacation after all! Why stress about anything?

'We'd better settle into the airport bar,' I thought to myself. I got the impression from her statement that clocks might not even exist in Cuba.


Friday, August 28, 2009

Cuba, Part 1

It was early March, 2005.

I had been milling around the apartment in West Hollywood for weeks. Trying to figure out something to do.

Up until recently, I'd been working on a television show called "AWE" that had a segment on basejumpers who liked to go to Monument Valley, Utah and do their thing off of impossibly high and narrow spires that looked like giant stalagmites. The only way you could get up there was by helicopter. These guys would just step off these toothy-looking suckers, hundreds of feet in elevation, physically throwing their parachutes above their head as they did so. It was really fun footage to look thru.

Now, I wasn't prepared at that time, to do any basejumping, but the thought of spending a week or two at Monument Valley seemed pretty good to me. Spend a little time with nature. Get away from all the computers and monitors for a while.

One night, my girlfriend Danielle, who I was living with at the time, came home and asked me what I was going to do.

"I'm thinking about going to Monument Valley. Ever heard of it?" I asked her.

"Yeah. That sounds nice. Utah, right? But I have a better idea...let's go to Cuba!!"

I thought about it for a minute. Then, something occurred to me.

"Wait...isn't it illegal to go to Cuba for us?"

"Yeah, but so what? Let's do it anyway!"

"Where in the hell did this idea come from? Can you get off work, even?"

"I just found out that I have two weeks off coming up really soon, and I thought of this idea...I'm not sure where it came from," she admitted.

The next day I started doing some research.

There were hundreds of U.S. citizens who had been fined over $10,000.00 for going to Cuba. A small portion of those had served jail time. Statistically speaking it was somewhat akin to being hit by lightning, but the thought of owing 10 to 15 grand to the government did not fill me with joy. Nor did jail time.

I shared the results of my research with Danielle.

"That's not going to happen! You can be so silly, sometimes!" she laughed. had to consider the source. This was a woman who had backpacked thru Guatemala, by herself, in the middle of the night, for weeks. Not too many women who would do that.

"Well you might not be the best person to give an objective opinion on this matter," I informed her, delicately.

"Whatever. Let's go to Cuba! CUBA!!" she yelled excitedly.

I had to admit...the idea was starting to infect me.

So I researched the matter further.

No credit cards would work for a U.S. citizen, in Cuba. You would be required to have all the money--in cash--you were going to spend (plus some safety percentage) on you at all times. You could not be wired money from the U.S. under any circumstances. Phone calls to the U.S. were virtually impossible with ordinary phone lines. If anything happened to you, it could go badly, because, after all, you were not even supposed to be there, legally.

How would we carry two thousand dollars on us? That's a lot of pocket change!

Was that viable?

What if we got caught?

What if they stamped our passport? (which they probably would...customs officials always stamp your passport) How the hell would we get back into the U.S. with a Cuban stamp on our passport? It just didn't seem all that smart. Something would trip us up. Plus, I couldn't get over the idea of carrying two thousand dollars in our pockets. How long would you last in downtown L.A., in the middle of the night, with that kind of money on you? And it was legal to be in downtown L.A., mind you!

"Quit your damn worrying!!" Danielle kept saying.

Slowly, but surely, she was convincing me of the utter coolness of the idea...but I had my reservations about the whole thing...


Friday, August 21, 2009


I repeat: I am thinking of being a tour guide in Estonia.

Have I finally gone off the ol' cliffity cliff 'o' sanity?

Yes...I believe so.




Yep, still sounds ridiculous.


Had to get one last one in there.