Friday, March 25, 2016

Cuba 2016: Getting Home And A Few Final Thoughts

We've been pretty lucky on our international vacations.  We haven't had any major schedule changes or mechanical problems ... until this trip, that is.

We got up early, had breakfast at the very nice hotel buffet, and checked out.  Our bus got us to the airport a couple hours before our flight was supposed to leave.  Unlike the guides from our other tours who usually dumped us off at the airport and waved goodbye, both of our Cuban guides waited as we picked up our boarding passes and hugged us all individually and said goodbye.  The tour company arranged the use of the VIP lounge for us as well which was a nice touch.

We spent the last of our Cuban currancy on cigars and snacks before they started our boarding.  We got on the plane, it starting rolling for take up, it accelerated, and then ... slowed back down.  The captain came on and said that one of the air speed indicators wasn't working and he would have to pull off the runway to inspect it.  Soon after we pulled off  we were told to deplane and head back to the terminal.

We flooded back into the VIP lounge, which was crowded now, and found a place to sit down.  The crew showed up soon afterward and told us that a bee had plugged up one of the pitot tubes.  We got a laugh out of that.  Unfortunately FAA regulations required that a mechanic be the one to remove the bee and the nearest mechanics were in Miami.  We would have to wait until either a new plane or a mechanic could be flown from Miami to Cuba.

The flight from Miami to Cuba is about forty-five minutes so it should have been a short wait but having to ready a second plane, finding a crew to fly the plane, and getting all the approvals from the US and Cuban authorities resulted in an eight hour delay while we waited for another plane.

Fortunately for us our AAA agent had suggested we spend the night in Miami and fly out the next day as she had heard that flights out of Cuba were often delayed.  She was prescient.  Instead of having a relaxing afternoon and evening in Miami we ended up getting to our hotel in time to go to bed and get four hours of sleep before we caught our flight home.
2016-03-12_Cuba_013
The Cuban Flag.

So ... did I like our Cuba trip?  Yes and no is my best answer.  More yes than no.  I enjoyed visiting Cuba before the wave of American (and other) tourists arrive in force in the near future.  I enjoyed seeing the old homes and old cars - a society and landscape frozen in the '50s.  But Cuba is different from the places we've traveled to before.

This trip was a cultural trip.  We did not visit some great architectural marvels.  We did not see rare and exotic wildlife.  We were not expose to spectacular historic sights.  The attraction of Cuba is its people and the products unique to the island.  I like the marvels, the exotic, the rare, and the spectacular.  There are four major things that attract people to the island:
  1. Cigars ... I don't smoke,
  2. Rum ... I don't drink.
  3. Coffee ... I don't partake.
  4. Old Cars ... ok, the cars were pretty cool.  I appreciate them but I'm not a huge enthusiast.
So I was a bit disappointed.  I'd hoped for a surprise but instead I got what I expected - an interesting people living a latin american lifestyle.  The city and the people reminded me a lot of Guatemala where I spent nine years of my adolescence.  This took away some of the potential charm that a person new to Latin America might experience.  Is this Cuba's fault?  No.  Cuba is as good as Cuba can be I think.

The trip was very educational and I did learn a few things which is always a positive.  Here are a few:
  • I saw the ubiquitous Che images but learned that there are no Fidel images.
  • I learned that religion such as catholicism and santeria are very important in Cuba unlike other communist countries where religion is discouraged or forbidden.. 
  • I learned that, at least for foreigners, there is a lot of freedom -  I somewhat expected some of the paranoid feelings of being watched I had in Tibet but there weren't any.
  • I learned that most of the old cars, passed down from one generation to another, are taxis but acted like buses, each having a set route.
  • I learned that most prices are fixed by the government.  I kind of knew this before but I didn't realize how easy it made it to predict how much money you would need.
  • I learned that there is still a lot of private business going on like the paladares and the sellers in the craft market.  I think Cubans will do fine once capitalism, albeit a Chinese version of state capitalism, takes hold.
  • I learned that doctors earned between $25 and $60 dollars a month but the education needed to become a doctor is free.  Our guide, who was from Uruguay, was getting a free education and once he completed it owed nothing to the Cuban government.  All healthcare was free in Cuba.
  • Speaking of healthcare, I learned it was a bit hazardous touring Havana.  Our group alone had a person who tore ligaments in her ankle and another with a potentially fractured wrist.  We met two other tourists, one with a patch covering her eye and another with a broken leg.  You have to watch your step in the streets of Havana.
  • I learned that, like many Americans, the Cubans also believe that President Obama will solve all their problems.  In anticipation of the President's visit they were repainting street markings and sprucing the city up.
There are many other lessons learned and they made this trip worthwhile to me.

Cuba will inevitably change over the next decade as the embargo is lifted and tourism from around the world increases.  Cuba has a long way to go before it is ready.  As many as a hundred and ten flights a day have been approved to start later this year.  Anyone who has flown into Havana knows that airport can't handle that many flights.  President Obama traveled with an entourage of five thousand diplomats and business representatives.  We heard as we were leaving that people were being moved from their hotel rooms to other accommodations outside of Havana to make room for some of them.  If they can't handle a surge of five thousand then they are not ready.  Think how many people will arrive once the cruise ships from Miami start docking.  Our guides acknowledged that the Cuban infrastructure was not ready for what is to come.  Let's hope they expand carefully and thoughtfully and that the Cuba we experienced will continue for some time to come.

Now, for us, it's onward to South America.

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