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Travel to Cuba: Highlights

August 10, 2006

Hemingway's House
Half the charm is just the drive out to his old home, Finca Vigia, and the view it commands of Havana. The house itself is showing the years of neglect, and you are not permitted inside. You are allowed, however, to look through the windows, but you'll be under constant surveillance. A squad of militant librarians hiss and snap their fingers at you if you even look like you may be thinking about looking closely at something. Here you'll also find the true original Pilar, Hemingway's fishing boat, despite the claims of some tackle shop in Fort Lauderdale to have the original.

Cojimar
A small fishing village just east of Havana, where Hemingway kept his boat, Pilar. This was the backdrop to his book The Old Man and the Sea, and, until recently, the home of Gregorio Fuentes, his boat captain. Many claim that Fuentes was also the inspiration for the protagonist in the book. Before he died, Fuentes was still available to talk about "Papa" and marlin fishing (he used to tell me that the big numbers of fish came in June but the biggest marlin were caught in September). The Terraza restaurant is right on the water and has some nice of photographs of Cojimar back in Hemingway's day.

Playas del Este
A beautiful beach, protected by sand dunes, and dotted with little ranchos where you can sit, listen to live music, and get a bite to eat with a cold beer. Heaven. Hire a gypsy cab in Havana and head out here to spend a great day. You'll need to sneak past the guards at the tunnel east of Havana (cigarettes and crumpled dollars at the ready!), but once you get past them, it's clear sailing. Your driver will park with all the other gypsy cabbies in a makeshift parking lot, where they'll spend the time comparing cars with the other drivers and taking a siesta.

El Patio
Located just off Plaza de la Catedral, this is another great spot for a cold drink and something to eat in the afternoon. Avoid the temptation to try the seafood and stick with the Cuban staples (chicken or pork chops). While it may not be the finest dining you will experience the atmosphere of the old city makes everything taste better. The owners usually have live music and will do their best to keep the beggars, as well as others trying to separate you from your money, at a distance.

La Floridita
It's touristy, it's overpriced, and the service is surly (especially the old guy with the glasses and all the goofy buttons on his vest), but after a day of walking around the amazing streets of Havana on a warm day, there's nothing, absolutely nothing on Earth, like a daiquiri at La Floridita. This was a favorite haunt of Hemingway, and there is even have a stool roped off in what was his favorite place to sit. Don't worry about having to decide what flavor of daiquiri you want because there's only one kind: a cool and zesty lemon. If you are thinking about getting a meal here, forget it. Have another daiquiri (one makes you lopsided anyway) and another bowl of salted plantains instead.

Hotel Nacional
If you too live by the adage "You can't put a price tag on a good time," then you'll want to make sure to stay at the Hotel Nacional. Once the playground of gangsters and movie stars, the Hotel Nacional is the culmination of everything you could imagine about the heyday of Cuba. With elegant gardens and stunning ocean views, the Hotel Nacional still attracts the "A" list of entertainers and international dignitaries. If you want to make sure you blend in with the other "stars," men should make sure to don their guayabera shirts and slacks (shorts are for little boys), and women should put on their finest summer dress. While money may not be plentiful in Cuba, it's no excuse for not dressing properly, especially when strolling through the lobby of the Hotel Nacional.

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Travel to Cuba: Essentials

Arriving by Air The airport in Havana is not what you would call "visitor friendly." As a buddy of mine says, the motto is "security time is all the time." Once you arrive, you must pass through passport control. Despite what you may have heard about the Cubans not stamping U.S. passports, it's purely discretional. Just because you ask the inspector not to stamp your passport does not mean that he or she has to comply. Not that it makes much difference; if you think that Uncle Sam needs a stamp in your passport to know you were in Cuba, you are mistaken. There's a thing called a flight manifest, with which all airlines must comply. When you check in for any international flight your name and passport makes up that manifest, and that information is available to those who ask for it no matter where you may fly from. Why do you think that when there's a plane crash somewhere that they know the number of people aboard and their nationalities within minutes? Arriving in Havana on a tourist visa means that you are there on vacation. It used to be that all you had to do was tell the inspector the name of any hotel and he or she would let you pass. Recently, as part of the crackdown on private-home rentals, the Cubans have required that you have a voucher in hand for a hotel for each night you are going to be in Cuba. They even set up a desk in the airport for Havanatur, one of the official tour operators. If you do not have a hotel voucher for each night, before you are officially permitted to enter Cuba, you have to go to the Havanatur desk and pay for a hotel. The trick is to book a ticket for two or three nights, pick the cheapest hotel you can (not easy), and then change your ticket later for the true length of your stay. While you're in Havana many people will try to rent you a place to stay; unfortunately, the closer you get to the older part of Havana, the more likely the room is to be in a state of disrepair and in a cramped building. The best private rooms and homes are in the Miramar neighborhood, where the art deco homes of the 1930s and 1940s are more like museums than houses. Customs The customs inspectors in Havana are some of the most thorough on the planet. If they select you to have a baggage inspection they will search every bag, every pocket, and every container. They even search the seams of your luggage, so do not bring anything in you don't want anyone to find. I once traveled with a friend who had a small unmarked bottle of hydrogen peroxide. When officials asked what it was, he explained it could be used to gargle with if you had a sore throat. "So you can swallow this if you have to?" asked the inspector. "Why sure, I guess so," said my friend. "Swallow it then!" the inspector commanded. And my buddy did. People may tell you to bring medicine, tampons, chewing gum, clothes, etc., to give as gifts, but I have found that in Cuba three things are most sought after: the U.S. dollar, followed by the two other universal currencies, Marlboro cigarettes and Johnny Walker Red. Gypsy Cabs Having a private car in Cuba is rare. Often those who have cars are doctors, members of the Communist Party, or other professionals who work in some sort of high public function. Sometimes the driver of a gypsy cab (a car owner working as clandestine cabbie) is a doctor "on his way home" or a plain clothes policeman. Most likely, though, you will find the car was "borrowed" or "rented" from such a person. One thing is for certain: these private cars are not supposed to compete with the official taxis authorized by the government. Nonetheless, there is nothing like driving around Havana in the back of a '55 Dodge, and thankfully it's still tolerated to a perpetually fluctuating degree. I used to have a driver whom I would call to meet me at the airport, but that became too difficult for him (and expensive). We decided instead that I would just meet him a block away from where I was staying. He would park and then jack the car up as though he had a flat tire (a common trick) so the police would not hassle him for trying to pick up rides. Most gypsy cabs have windows with dark tint so no one can see inside. If you're stopped, it's good to have a couple of cigarettes and a couple of bucks folded up real small in your top pocket. The standard story is that you are from Miami on a  familyvisit. The cigarettes and money are to make sure that your story is easier to swallow. If you can, try to hire a car for the day, and arrange the price up front. Make sure you haggle but don't grind the guy too bad; $50 a day is a good benchmark. If you plan on driving a lot, you may also be expected to pay for gas. Often the gas is locked in the trunk (to avoid theft), and taken out one gallon at a time, and put in a makeshift gas tank found under the hood.

Inside Cuba

For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure, visiting Cuba for the first time will be something you will never forget. Cuba has its own unique smells, sounds, and rhythms. History surrounds you, and despite the lack of many the things that we Americans may consider vital, people in Cuba seems to live life a little more intensely than anyplace else. Leave your preconceptions at home, as well as your political opinions, and you are sure to experience something unique. Cuba is a country free of many of the things we associate with a modern society. What it lacks in amenities, it makes up for in art, music, dance, literature, and history. It is a living experiment on the human potential absent the capitalistic influences. As you travel there, you can judge for yourself how successful it's been at achieving these goals, but like most opinions in Cuba, your ideas are best kept to yourself. Another thing you will discover about traveling in Cuba is that "rules' seem to change each time you visit. What was permitted the last time is now illegal and what was illegal may now be tolerated at some level. Recommended Reading: You should not go to Cuba without having done a little research. There are two books I would recommend in order to get a better idea of the Cuba of today and yesterday. Dr. Roberto G. Fernandez's book, Raining Backwards, has some great observations about the exile community in a hilarious novel, published by Arte Publico Press. My personal favorite is the comment by one exile about the eggs in Cuba being so large in pre-Castro Cuba that they had to give the chickens C-sections. The other book I suggest is Mi Moto Fidel by Christopher P. Baker, which details the author's adventures riding his motorcycle throughout Cuba.

How to Use Your Cell Phone Almost Anywhere

There's no shortage of theories on the best way to make phone calls while overseas. Some folks are devotees of calling cards. Others love technologies such as Skype, which allow calls to be made via the Internet. But for convenience, nothing compares to your own cell phone. Not all cell phones are compatible with the technology used overseas, however, so the first step is figuring out if your phone will work in your destination. The GSM network, used by T-Mobile and Cingular, is the standard for most of the world. If you have a Verizon Wireless phone, which operates on the CDMA network, chances are you won't be able to make calls in Europe, Australia, or Africa. The frequencies, or bands, also have to match. Some cell-phone models are dual-band, which is fine for the two GSM frequencies most common in the U.S., 850 and 1900 MHz. Others are tri- or quad-band, so they work at home and abroad, where the most common frequencies are 900 and 1800 MHz. Go to cellular-news.com/coverage to look up the networks and frequencies used at your destination. Then ask your provider or look in your manufacturer's handbook for the corresponding info. Once you know your phone will function, the next step is figuring out which cost-saving strategy makes the most sense for you. International plans If this is the first time you'll be using your phone overseas, before leaving home tell your wireless provider to activate the international roaming option. But be aware that outside the U.S., calling home, checking voice mail, or dialing across town in your destination can cost $10 before you know it. In general, rates are higher in areas with poor infrastructure. Using T-Mobile, calls from most of Western Europe are $1-$1.50 per minute, but dialing from Uganda or Russia will cost you $5 per minute. If you plan on traveling abroad often, ask your provider about international rate plans. Cingular's program costs an extra $6 per month, but it discounts international calls by 40¢ per minute on average. Local SIM cards A SIM card is the postage stamp-size chip that stores account info in all GSM phones. After replacing your SIM card with one intended for the country you're visiting, you instantly have a local number. Making reservations at a nearby hotel becomes a local call, often costing less than 25¢ a minute. As a bonus, incoming calls to your new number are usually free, though anyone dialing you from the U.S. will pay for long distance. The downside of swapping SIM cards is that no one calling your old number will get through; you probably won't have access to stored phone numbers, either. But if you need to make or accept lots of calls in the place you're visiting, the trade-offs are probably worth it. You can buy a new SIM card through telestial.com and dozens of sellers at prepaidgsm.net. It's usually cheaper, however, to pick up a SIM card in your destination. Cards, which start at $20 to $50 depending on where you're traveling, come with a certain number of minutes included. Your handset must be unlocked to switch SIM cards; if necessary, contact your wireless company to find out how to unlock it. And keep your old SIM card in a safe place. You'll want it when you get home. The callback service Using a new SIM card lets you make cheap local calls in your destination, but dialing back to the U.S. still incurs hefty charges. Here's the trick for avoiding them. Register your new number and a credit card with a service called GlobalPhone (gphone.com). Then, when you want to call internationally, first dial a country-specific "trigger" number. Let the phone ring once and hang up. A few moments later, your phone will ring, and you'll be prompted to punch in the number you're trying to reach--at a much cheaper rate than dialing directly. You're basically accepting an incoming call--and remember, that's usually free with a SIM card meant for the country you're visiting. GlobalPhone takes advantage of bulk international rates, and the result is that most calls between Europe and the U.S. wind up costing less than 40¢ a minute. Registration is free, and you're only charged for the calls you make.

Boondockers

For 50 years, Arkansas native Nadine Anglin has been wintering in the California desert. Unlike the snowbirds who flock to Palm Springs, Anglin, 85, prefers an abandoned World War II naval base called Slab City, 170 miles southeast of Los Angeles. There's no electricity, no bathrooms, no formal law enforcement--and no rent. Anglin is part of a community of people who call themselves boondockers--people who park their RVs together in remote spots (the boondocks), thereby forming temporary settlements. "When I go back to Arkansas, it always seems so dull," she says. Slab City, a 640-acre stretch of state-owned desert near the Salton Sea, is the most popular location in the country for boondockers to congregate. In the height of winter, the community is about 3,000 members strong. While official RV parks offer electrical hookups, cable TV feeds, and waste disposal facilities--for as much as $200 a week--the only amenities at Slab City are a weekly church service, a bulletin board on the main road with info on barbecues and other events, and a stage for open-mike nights. The closest working plumbing is in Niland, Calif. (pop. 1,200), a few miles west. "You have to love the outdoors," says Anglin, who's fond of dune buggying through the desert, "and you have to be able to handle problems like your RV's battery going dead." She counts on three other things for survival: solar panels to cut down on the cost of gas-powered generators; a CB radio to communicate with neighbors (Anglin's CB name is Colorback); and a big tank for "black water," the name given to the RV occupants' waste. You also have to love the nomadic life. Many boondockers spend the season moving from one settlement to another. "I get tired of sitting at a campground, looking at the same people day after day," says Bernard Schnieders, 73, who makes regular stops at Slab City. "I like the freedom." The three main websites for boondockers are escapees.com, boondocking.org, and desertdutch.org. The latter is maintained by Slab City "resident" Dutch Schaafsma. When asked how he'd advise potential boondockers, he says to inspect your neighbors closely before you set up camp. "If you don't like 'em," he says, "you can always move to another spot." The main entrance to Slab City is off Highway 111, four miles east of Niland, slabcity.org.

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