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    Top Five Havana, Cuba Travel Tips

    July 14, 2017 // 12 Comments »



    Though the rules governing travel to Cuba by Americans are expected to tighten back up this fall, that shouldn’t stop you from traveling there. I just got back from Havana, and the place is well-worth what little extra effort it takes to get there. Here are a few things I learned that will help your trip…



    1) You can’t use U.S. credit or ATM cards. You have to bring cash.

    You really do. I know that one blog said you could use your U.S. debit card, and your friend’s cousin’s old boyfriend claims he hit up ATMs across the island, but because of the American government’s six decade long economic embargo on Cuba, U.S. folks cannot do any business electronically. Your credit cards and ATM cards will not work. Nope. No way. Most everyone else, no worries, ATMs are available, at least in bigger cities. But as an American you have to arrive in Cuba with the money you will spend, in your pocket, in cash. You simply cannot access your money at home (maybe via Western Union if mommy will wire you) from Cuba. Scour the web for prices for your style of travel, add some extra for extras, and roll up to Cuba with a (literal) bankroll.



    2) Changing money (CUC versus CUP)

    With the exception of at the few duty free shops available at the airport as you exit Cuba, all tanned and happy, everything you buy will be bought in one of the two local currencies. So you’ll have to change your foreign money. U.S. dollars (alone) are penalized for the exchange (it’s all politics, friends) at 10%, so it is better to get Euros, Canadian dollars or even Yen outside Cuba, and then exchange those.

    It is relatively quick and easy to change money at the airport upon arrival. You already have your passport with you, and the workers there are used to the whole messy process even though you may not be. Change what you think you’ll need for the whole trip at once. Otherwise, once in town, changing money means either a lower rate at the big hotels that may help you, or a typically long wait at a local bank where clerks seem to draw mysterious strength from working s-l-o-w-ly and enjoying watching you burn away your vacation hours in their lobby.

    There are two currencies circulating, convertible pesos (known as CUC) and “local” money (known as CUP.) Do some Googling on the difference. The short answer is CUC is used nearly anywhere you’ll be as a tourist, is desired by local people as a tip or payment, and is what you will receive anyway when you exchange foreign currency. The coolest part about the local money, the CUP, is the three peso note has Che’s picture on it, a great souvenir. You can change any leftover CUC — but not CUP — back into foreign currency when you depart Cuba.


    3) Taxis and negotiations

    A lot of things in Cuba are negotiable, none more than taxis. For practical, casual, tourist purposes, there is no such thing as public transportation. You’ll travel around by taxi. They have no meters. Taxi drivers have been doing this longer than you have.

    So research a bit and get a general idea of what prices are from the airport into old Havana, or from Vedado (a popular AirBnB location) into town. For the latter, we paid at times US$5 and US$20 for the same trip. Nicer cars, time of day, negotiating skills, official taxi or not, and maybe just luck all affected price. If you are a group, make sure the price you settle on (and settle before you get in the cab!) is for the whole group. Some unscrupulous drivers will offer a group of say four a low price, only to demand x4 that price upon arrival. Negotiations are soft-style, a smile, a little sigh, a lower number, another smile, that kind of thing. You’re not Liam Neeson trying to get his daughter back, you’re on vacation.



    4) Spanish words, every one helps

    Speaking of negotiations, every word you know in Spanish will improve your trip to Cuba. English is not widely spoken, and in most cases you will have a better/easier/smoother/more culturally mindful time if you can tell drivers your destination in Spanish, and settle a bill in Spanish. So go, right now I’ll wait, and write down the Spanish words for 5, 10, 15, 20, 25… and so on. Know the street address of where you’re staying in Spanish, and thrown in an hour of review online somewhere for a few handy phrases. It’ll all pay off. Tourists who already can communicate well in Spanish are in for a real treat because…


    5) Hit the Beach (Playa de Este)

    …because the Cuban people I met were uniformly friendly, warm, and interested in chatting. We were held back only when language walls were reached. Not everyone was willing to talk politics, but if you want to, so do some others. Local baseball fans seem well-informed about what was happening in the U.S., and young people have reasonable access to the web and are aware of music and fashion trends, at least in Miami and the Bronx.

    One can’t miss way to mingle is to hit the beach. About 30 minutes’ taxi ride outside of Havana is the Playa de Este area, a string of great beaches. Pick one (we liked Santa Maria), go on a Sunday, and it will be mostly Cubans of all types. Go on a dull Monday afternoon, and there still will be plenty of local people. Everyone is in a good mood, beer and rum may be involved, and it was easy to strike up a conversation. The beach trip also gives a short-term visitor a (albeit) brief glimpse outside the city itself.

    You can also easily find people to talk with at Havana’s outdoor WiFi spots, as well as the usual places like bars, cafes, restaurants and the like.



    Bonus

    Otherwise, I encountered no crime, and never felt threatened or afraid. Drink bottled water. Wear good walking shoes, and sunscreen like it’s the tropics because it is. Bring pocket tissues as some public toilets don’t have toilet paper. Enjoy the fact that there are no fast food places cluttering up the streets.

    And say hello for me to the Cuban people. I already miss being in their company.




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    It’s Father’s Day, Call Your Dad

    June 21, 2015 // 3 Comments »

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    You called your dad, right?

    As a public service to those waking up late, call your Dad. Some tips:

    — Don’t let him pass the phone to mom for at least 60 seconds;

    — You may only discuss the weather for 20 of those seconds. If you have recently experienced a hurricane or major earthquake, you can take 45 seconds. If Dad recently experienced a hurricane or major earthquake, you get 20 seconds on “weather” and then you have to roll the rest into the “So, really, how’s it going?”

    — You must listen to his health update as long as he wants to run with it. It’s Father’s Day, so sack up buddy, and hear all about that hemorrhoid the size of a Polish sausage, how he can’t pee anymore, or how Mom is making him eat yoghurt and “whatever the f*ck kale is” for his bowel thing.

    — You must listen to at least one “When I was your age…” story. You are, however, permitted to steer this toward safe-topics like bands he listened to that were better than the crap you listen to, sports team franchises that no longer exist, or, if you are lucky, stuff about his girlfriends before Mom as long as he keeps it clean. Dad!

    — Somewhere in the conversation you must mention one or two details of your own life. Actual details, not just “Yeah, work is OK.” This is an easy one. Complain about your boss. Something about computers not working. If you are unemployed or after Dad paid for four years of undergrad so you could study English your job is working fast food, best to make something up. It’s Father’s Day, after all, save him the coronary until another week.

    — Tolerate, just this once, any old-timey racist or sexist remarks, or jokes. He means well. He grew up in a different time and era. He doesn’t yet know about your new life partner of a different race or the same sex. Mom is sort of waiting for the right moment on that to tell him, such as maybe never in hopes you see the light and break up before Dad finds out.

    — Practice in the mirror: “Sure, put Mom on the phone. We should talk more.”




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    Help Wanted: Saudi Arabia Advertises for New Executioners as Beheading Rate Soars

    June 18, 2015 // 8 Comments »

    Bush-Saudi-Arabia


    Saudi Arabia, one of America’s bestest friends in the fight against extremists like IS who behead people, was ranked third in 2014, after China and Iran, and ahead of Iraq and the United States, of all countries in numbers of executed people, according to Amnesty International.

    The neat thing is that while the U.S. is at war with IS, screeching about how they behead, the Saudi’s just keep sending people into really fair Sharia courts and then whacking away as the U.S. sits silent.

    Now, Saudi Arabia is advertising for eight new executioners, recruiting extra staff to carry out an increasing number of death sentences, usually done by public beheading. Authorities have not said why the number of executions increased so rapidly, but diplomats have speculated it may be because more judges have been appointed, allowing a backlog of appeal cases to be heard.

    No special qualifications are needed for the executioner job, whose main role is “executing a judgment of death” but also involve performing amputations on those convicted of lesser offences. The work seems to require some physical labor, is done outside and it looks like you have to buy your own sword.

    The job announcement was posted in Arabic on a Saudi civil service jobs portal. It is open to Saudi citizens only. You begin the application process with a downloadable pdf application form for the executioner jobs. The jobs apparently are classified as “religious functionaries” and start at the lower end of the civil service pay scale.

    Still, while the take home pay may be low, you just can’t beat this kind of thing for job satisfaction. Find something you love to do, and it’ll never be work.




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    The Ritual of Moving Out of the Dorm — With No Long Speeches

    June 6, 2015 // 7 Comments »


    This time of year everybody talks about the ritual of college graduation. But no one seems to focus on the other college right of passage that’s unfolding now, the move out of the dorm and back home for the summer.

    Perhaps the dorm thing gets less attention because it happens more than once; three or four times (we hope not too many more times) for most traditional students. But humping boxes and suitcases out of my daughter’s dormitory like I’m a roadie for KISS had as much to say about college, life, and parenting as any commencement. And without the long speeches.

    Making sense out of moving-out of the dorm only makes sense in the context of moving-in to the dorm. That far back in history, everything was folded neatly, socks were in pairs and kitchen supplies still smelled of Walmart. Roommates were all friends-for-life to be, full of fun comments about how much the same/how different everyone looked from the Facebook profiles that had been stalked mercilessly all summer. Empty notebooks, clean dorm rooms, all that hope and promise ahead stuff.

    We parents moved-in heavy things, and exchanged friendly chat about how all that could fit into a dorm room, about how we were all sure the girls would become friends-for-life, and said “Oh, this is nice” in a tone of voice we hoped sounded credible in reference to the bathroom. With our kids, quiet words about some silly thing from their childhood we just recalled were exchanged even as they turned to ignore us after some kid stuck his head in to announce a crucial floor meeting, and a tear or two (ours exclusively) marked our being shushed out the door. There seemed to have been so much to talk about on the way up here. It was a long trip home with my spouse to have suddenly not a word to say.

    And now nine months later we were back.

    If any packing had preceded our arrival, it consisted of tangled clothes, some still damp from the gym, stuffed into suitcases. New things – clothes we hadn’t bought her ourselves, including a very adult black dress – made an appearance. A fresh coat of grime had been applied to the tub. What one hoped was part of that hard-won A- in Advanced Biology we’d heard about was left in the refrigerator. No, we didn’t need to take the Tupperware home, thanks.

    The friends-for-life roommates had turned out to be people, with all the good things and bad things people bring along into dorm rooms. Some goodbyes seemed to mean more than others. We parents watched awkwardly; we had heard it all, or at least a very, very one-sided version of it all, from our kids. Parental eyes did not meet. The tales I heard about so-and-so and her acrobatic boyfriend might have had twin sister versions that involved my own kid. It was better to simply ask the other dads about traffic on the way up, until –

    Damn, I just saw her not too long ago for a visit, and we had two weeks together at Christmas, but what happened to my daughter? The kid who needed to be pushed and shoved a year or so ago to finish a university admissions essay that tragically failed to tie together the symbolism of the river in Mark Twain and some boring summer job now wants to talk about the Cold War mistakes of the Truman administration (cool) and 19th century French poetry (I just nod.)

    We’ll all be together for the summer, but only the parental side of the equation can see the clock running. There used to be a lot more summers. Now there are just a couple more dorm move-ins and move-outs to watch as time runs away. One of those moves will mark commencement, and that’ll be an emotional day of its own. But everybody knows commencement is a big deal. My worry is it is too easy to miss the three years of early warnings signs that precede it.




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    Chuck Norris Campaigns for Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu

    March 17, 2015 // 5 Comments »

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    …But before we get to that, here are a couple of favorite Chuck Norris jokes:

    Chuck Norris can light a fire by rubbing two ice-cubes together. Chuck Norris doesn’t flush the toilet, he scares the poop out of it. Death once had a near-Chuck Norris experience. Chuck Norris can slam a revolving door. There is no theory of evolution, just a list of animals Chuck Norris allows to live. Chuck Norris does not cough, nothing escapes Chuck Norris.


    OK, back to what passes for reality. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is struggling in his effort to win a fourth term in this week’s elections (still held in Israel.) His recent stunt — traveling to the U.S. on a Republican invitation to insult Obama in front of Congress — came off as way more pathetic Sarah Palin than crusty John McCain. So desperate times call for desperate measures.

    How desperate? Former Walker, Texas Ranger star and human action figure (with the brains to match) Chuck Norris made a last-minute video to boost the endangered premier. See the video below.

    “I watched Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech before Congress, and I saw a man who loves his country with all his heart and soul,” Norris says in the video. “I have done three movies in Israel, Delta Force being my favorite, and I formed many friendships while there. You have an incredible country, and we want to keep it that way.”

    Well, that certainly is convincing. Because what could a Netanyahu campaign need more of at this critical stage than a washed-up B-movie American actor speaking directly to the electorate in a monotone at a slow enough pace that you wonder if the United States ran out of coffee?

    BONUS: It was the philosopher Voltaire who said “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”





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    Diplomatic Security Warns on Shooting: “May be subject to Discovery”

    November 8, 2011 // Comments Off on Diplomatic Security Warns on Shooting: “May be subject to Discovery”

    Following the gunning down of a man in Hawaii by an off-duty State Department Diplomatic Security (DS) special agent bully-boy, the director of Diplomatic Security, Scott P. Bultrowicz, sent this message to his entire DS staff, several of whom immediately leaked it (thanks, please stop sending additional copies, and emphasis added):

    Dear Colleagues,

    I regret that my initial message to the organization is about the tragic incident involving Special Agent Christopher Deedy early Saturday morning in Honolulu. Many of you know that Agent Deedy was involved in an altercation that ended in the fatal shooting of a 23-year-old local man. The story has been widely reported.

    I am not at liberty to discuss the investigation. However, I want to let everyone know that DS has been in communication with the Honolulu authorities from the time we were first notified about the shooting. We will do what we can to ensure Agent Deedy’s well-being, and have already provided assistance to his family. We also are mindful of the terrible loss suffered by the deceased’s family and friends.

    I remind everyone that there is an ongoing investigation of this matter by the Honolulu Police Department. Discussion about what happened in Honolulu, Agent Deedy’s state of mind, and/or whether his actions were justified should be limited to the agents investigating the matter.

    Also, please keep in mind that communications over the internet that are publicly available (such as blogs, tweets, and bulletin boards) and are on matters of official concern (which this case is) must be reviewed by the Department. Additionally, all written communications, on either government or private accounts, may be subject to discovery in legal proceedings relating to this incident.

    I look forward to communicating with you on other matters throughout my tenure. Please do not reply to this message.



    Takeaway message:

    When in doubt, begin the cover up immediately. Remind everyone everything they write is gonna end up in court.

    Still no word about whether Agent Deedy’s security clearance has been suspended or not.




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