Monday, August 31, 2009

No Return, part IV

  1. Having settled in to the hotel, now it was time to attend an introductory meeting and decide what optional side-tours were available. The sales spiel was in Spanish, but I could follow along enough to know the options and prices. I declined the "Lido Show" at $40.00, but decided on a walking tour of Old Havana and a day trip to Veredero Beach some miles to the north. I really only wanted to ride somewhere out of the city to see the countryside.

    The walking tour gathered in the lobby and we were a small group. Once outside we were immediately surrounded by a knot of youngsters. They appeared to be in the 10 to 15 age range and were at once pestering us for gifts and money. After the tour guide admonished them, the band dropped back a ways, but followed us wherever we went. It became apparent the last one of our group, the slowest one, the one in awe of old buildings, the one who wanted to go slower, was the weakest of the pack. This is the one prayed upon like the crippled zebra with a sign "take me, I'm the weak one". It so happened I was this the lackadaisical wonder-eyed straggler and I soon was approached by a small lad younger than the rest who couldn't have been more than 7 who told me I had already lost a pencil from my back pocket and if I didn't put my camera away, it would soon be gone too. So I snapped-to and regained a better position within the group.

    The cigar factory we entered reminded me of what one might call a sweat shop. With a rather boring exterior, on the inside was row after row of tables with cigar rollers, mostly women, each one busily wrapping, cutting and forming perfectly uniform stogies. The aroma of fresh tobacco was not unpleasant, like a very pungent herb.

    Hemingway's bar was a narrow long room with long bar and stools and just room enough for a few tiny tables. Of course the walls were plastered with pictures of "Papa" and the covers of books he had written. It was a pleasant enough place for anyone who likes bars, this one just more touristy then most.

    Our tour had us wandering a circuitous route through the oldest part of the port city. I've seen period architecture like this in many cities in Europe, but nothing like these buildings that have been in a time-warp for 50 years. They hold up well without maintenance, but appear as though you've discovered a lost city. The absence of freshly painted surfaces, signs feels more like a science fiction movie where the actors are sent back in time to a city without inhabitants, the only difference is that there are people on the streets here.

    Our last stop was to the required tourist gift shop. There were hand-crafts made of wood and reed woven baskets and lots of trinkets. I bought a couple Cuban posters I figured I could claim I bought in Mexico if my luggage were to be inspected on landing in Los Angeles.

    Tour over and back in the hotel, I needed to figure out how to explore on my own without being mobbed on the hotel's front steps. As it turned out, a young fellow, 17 years old he told me later, introduced himself in the lobby. He explained, in Spanish, how he could show me around and what Havana had to offer a traveler. We made no formal agreement for his services, but I thought the details could be worked out as we went along. I was right, but....

Saturday, August 22, 2009

No Return, part III

OK, I was in Cuba. Things could go wrong. I could lose my passport or have it stolen, I could get sick enough to need to fly out , I could die there (although at that point I relinquish all further responsibility). There is no U.S. Embassy, no one to help in case of emergency. There is only one hospital located in Havana that is allowed to treat U.S. citizens and they only take cash for treatment. Credit cards are non-existent and although officially one must exchange dollars for Cuban Pesos, everyone loves to get dollars. I have to admit here that I wasn't thinking of any of these things at the time, only looking forward to what I might discover.

I had handed my return air ticket over to whom I believed to be a representative of the travel agency that sent me there. I could only know the truth when I returned to the airport in a week to see if this guy materialized with my ticket. My best guess is his holding my ticket prevented me from selling it to a Cuban National, something I would think is valuable.

On the bus ride to the hotel I could easily see what I had read about this once grand city now in suspended animation since 1959. Ornate Colonial buildings were left unpainted, unrepaired, and looking like a city long abandoned. On one street corner in the entrance alcove to what might have been a multi-story department store now closed, was a woman selling a few potatoes and vegetables perhaps from her home garden. The dichotomy of this scene was that people on the street looked more prosperous than they really were. They walked with a certain pride, an upright, self-assured gait.

My hotel was obviously once a very posh high-rise on the melecon waterfront with a grand lobby showing off stone "modern" sculptures on each of the several coffee tables surrounded by leather sofa-chairs. The view from my 11th floor room was overlooking the now dry rooftop pool and down the sea wall to the El Morro Fort that in former times protected the Havana harbor. My room was a well-worn motel 6 look-alike with 60's appointments. My friend Kelvin once told me that tipping service people upon arrival assured good service. I've always thought this good advice since they will know up-front they are getting a tip at all. So with this in mind I introduced myself to the maid on the floor and offered several pair of Levi jeans I could no longer get my expanded butt into. Her reserved manner immediately lightened and told me her sons would be happy to have them. She thanked me to the point I became embarrassed to be so rich as to even have jeans.

My next task of settling in was to deposit several hundred dollars in the front desk safe and to stash several hundred dollars behind the painting on the wall of my room. One couldn't be sure of anything here, even the security of the front desk safe. I figured cash might buy my way out of a pinch.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

No Return, Part 2

I was on a familiarization junket for travel agents in Mexico. It was a week of being treated well, eating well, and traveling well and a little ho-hum in the exciting department save exploring a few Mayan Ruins. It occurred to me that if the Mexican Department of Tourism purchased my flight ticket, I might well be able to call the airline and extend my return date for a week of travel on my own. Sure enough, my reservation information must have indicated something along the lines of "let him do anything he wants" because there were no questions asked and my ticket was re-issued for a delayed return to Los Angeles.

With that hurdle crossed, I began to imagine what kind of adventure I was up for. My new idea was presented right in front of my face when I passed by a travel agency in the airport hotel. It was a large poster of a red tiled stone tower advertising trips to Cuba. It was a nervous, halting entrance I made into the agency to inquire about flying to Havana.

I had heard, of course, that the fine for a U.S. citizen caught going to Cuba was $250,000. I also heard that you could ask not to have your passport stamped whereby customs in the U.S. wouldn't know you had been. It was as if this trip was tailor-made for me offering some measure of chance and unknown adventure. As the travel agent explained, the only way Cuba was accepting tourists was on an organized, pre-planned itinerary. Food and hotel were included and a choice of optional tours paid for once there.

The U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control enforces economic and trade sanctions on Cuba. So the restriction on travel to Cuba was not against actually traveling there, but the spending of any money there. Did paying for my entire trip in Mexico allow me legal entry to Cuba even though I knew I would be buying Cuba Libres, a cigar or two, and anything else I couldn't get at home? The short answer is "no". U.S. citizens must be licensed for travel in Cuba and licenses are only issued to organizations like healthcare, arts exchange, baseball players, reporters, and so on.

So I entered the country illegally and asked, "Favor de no estampar el passaporte mio". From this point forward I did not hear another word of English.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Blueberry pickin'

It was a nice overcast Sunday. Not too hot, not too cold. Samantha and I drove out to Libby & Son blueberry farm for a little pickin'.

Maine is the blueberry capitol and the wild plants that collectively amount to 60,000 acres love Maine's acid, rocky soil. Wild blueberries grow on what are called "low bush". You'll probably see prices higher this year due to our unusually wet weather which produces "Valdensinia Leaf Spot", a fungus that effects the growth cycle for next year's crop. These bushes must be burned to eradicate the fungus, since it will linger on dead leaves and recurs next year at harvest time.

Our mission this day was to pick from "high bush" plants on a cultivated farm in Limerick. Libby's farm consists of 8,500 bushes of about 5 different varieties of "high bush". Since each variety ripens at a different time, we can continue to pick into early October.

The berries ripen in clusters like grapes, but not all at once. Within a short time you learn to just roll the cluster gently in your fingers and the ripest berries will fall into your hand..... nothing to it.

Within about an hour and a half our total take was 16 pounds and that's what you see here. As you enter the picking fields through the sales barn, attendants weigh your container and write the weight on the outside. When checking out, they subtract the container weight to get your true blueberry purchase. Price is $2.50 per pound.

My 5 1/2 pounds filled a gallon and a quart sized zip-lock bag which I have frozen. I'll plan to go again later in the season just to make sure I'll have enough to last through winter. It feels a lot like gathering nuts for winter.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

No Return, a Travel Story Serial Part 1

Much has been written about why we travel and there seem to be as many reasons as there are travelers. In examining my own impetus to strike out to foreign lands, I've come up with a short list: Adventure (doing and seeing things I've never experienced before); Danger (that certain feeling of dabbling in the forbidden); Food (seeing what other cultures eat and maybe eating it myself); Examination (seeing how humanity has figured out different ways of doing the same things).

For this story danger plays the dominant role.

As I walked down the portable stairs from the plane there was an immediate tropical feel to the air. It was a little humid and the light breeze tickled the red, white, and blue flag above the airport's lone small terminal building. Standing across the tarmac on either side of the terminal entrance were two camouflage-clad military sentinels, each with his own sub-machine gun slung over a shoulder. I suddenly felt as though we where a clandestine drug-laden plane landing somewhere in the jungle to offload dangerous cargo. Everybody from the plane ambled the 300 yards without the slightest evidence of worry, bypassed the guards and entered the building. I followed suit.

Once inside, all seemed normal again as passengers lined up in front of the two customs booths to be processed through to baggage claim. When my turn came I declared, "I am from the United States, would you please not stamp my passport"? With no reply and no expression, the official just closed my passport and handed it back. I was in-country and nobody else knew it.

Believing the worst was over and now I could enjoy a whole week of adventure in an illegal country, I headed for the large sliding glass doors toward a waiting bus outside. Before I reached the doors, a man approached and asked, "Are you Mr. Croddy"? "Yes", I replied wondering how the hell anyone knew me here. He said "I'll have to hold your return ticket until next week". Suddenly I wasn't feeling so samary-pants.

Sometimes when traveling off the normal tourist track the decisions you make turn out to be serious with no possible way of taking them back. That's exactly what makes it adventurous. Taken to the extreme, your decisions can kill you.