Archive for August, 2012

Due to most of my time being dominated by the part of my job I am not legally allowed to disclose in a public forum, writing new ABYM’s has become more challenging over the last several months.

So I decided I would start a new category that I can use to showcase the part of my life that does not take place in Nicaragua….my vacations.

First, a quick overview of my work schedule and how my vacations work.

1st: I get paid per diem. This means I have no hours, no overtime, no anything….just days. Occasional if it is warranted I will bill a half day, but basically I either work a day or I don’t. That being said, my time off is not equal to paid vacations. Each day I am on vacation represents in a sense, a lost day of pay.

2nd: The company I work for pays for the geologists to fly home at the end of each rotation. For me, a flight back to Colorado is actually quite expensive. So I settled upon a mutually beneficial situation in which I fly to mostly not CO destinations, and so long as the cost of the flight isn’t more than what it would be to go back to CO (80% of the time) I don’t have to pay for the flight. On the rare instances it costs more, I simply pay the difference.

3rd: I coordinate my schedule with the other geologists and needs of the project, but outside of that the starting and ending days tend to be very flexible.

Since starting this job in January 2011, I have traveled more than I ever thought I would. It sometimes surprises me when I am sitting in an airport comparing and contrasting little idiosyncrasies that are present between the Central American countries when only a couple years prior I couldn’t ever even think about me visiting (much less living) down here. I will get to the other countries and their differences (IMO) later, but I figured I would start with my favorite place south of the border, somewhere where I think everyone should go before it changes too much…..

Cuba was an amazing place, and an amazing experience. The current legal restrictions are basically a scare tactic and are actually categorized under the trading with the enemy act and prohibit you from engaging in any form of commerce with a Cuban entity. This exists despite Congress’ formal declaration in 1999 that Cuba is no longer and enemy. I could go through a bunch of stuff on the legal ins and outs, but it’s easier just to post this link.

http://www.jameslewisrn.com/
This guy is awesome. He has done anything and everything he can to explore every nook and cranny of American travel to Cuba. He has tours you can take, advice to give, and will even personally answer any and all e-mails you send him (he answered mine.)
*Legal Disclaimer: All advice above aside, any information hinting to purchases made in Cuba refer to 3rd person purchases that through good fortune and charm I was able to enjoy for free, and are only told from a first person perspective to yield a more easily understandable story.

🙂

So now that you understand how to go, the first thing you need to know is….

uba will ruin cigars for you. Seriously.

I had never been much of a cigar person before I went. I would have a Nicaraguan cigar once or twice with my boss, and I was trying to develop a taste so that I could actually tell if a cigar was good or not. The thing that is great about cigars is that they are enjoyable, but generally leave you with no desire to smoke one for a bit. Maybe you are celebrating something, maybe it was a long day, who knows. But they certainly aren’t an everyday thing.

Except in Cuba.

Ya gotta fit in somehow….

Cuban cigars are crazy. They are smooth, have great taste, and leave no shitty aftertaste, headache, drymouth, grit on your teeth, etc etc that most other cigars leave. They are so palatable, that while walking around Cuba you almost feel weird not smoking one. I went with a friend, and about 75% of the trip was spent drinking mojitos, playing yahtzee, and smoking cigars. Cigars went from being a once a month indulgence that always had a twinge of remorse afterwards to being an after-meal delight following any food intake after breakfast.

Not only are they fantastic, but they are absurdly cheap. A box of 25 Cohibas can be purchased for under $75, and handmade cigars from local campesino tobacco farmers you can get for $20 (roll of 10).

So now cigars are great. They are awesome. You love ’em.

Until you go ANYWHERE else.

Now anything you smoke is a dried up husk of burnt wood that seems to leave this horrible taste in every part of your body.

You go from weenie amateur to complete snob in one trip.

You come back and talk about them like they are some mythical secret, meanwhile everyone else sees you like this:

“Nah man….you just DON’T understand how good they are!

nderstanding Cuban Spanish is almost impossible.
I don’t care how many years you took Spanish in high school, or if your family is Mexican and you are fluent. Cuban Spanish is freakin’ tough.

Here’s an exercise. If you can read my blog, it’s safe to assume you can speak English.

Try to follow along to this song, even with the words printed on screen:


Now imagine that….twice as fast….in something that isn’t your native language….and you have Cuban Spanish.

Fortunately for me, I learned all of my Spanish from back country, hillbilly Nicaraguans, whose Spanish is also hard to understand. Nicaraguans speak slower for sure, and enunciate a little more than Cubans, but still don’t come anywhere close.

It took me a full day and a half and a bunch of rum to start really having conversations in Cuba.

Point being….don’t feel bad if everything flies over your head.

Not even Cubans listen to other Cubans

ring enough money to get out.

Cuba is a place that is unlike almost any other country on Earth. I would bet that North Korea and Antarctica are two other places where your credit card is as useless as a stick on the ground. You have to bring cash in, you need to pay $25 at the airport to get out, you can’t use any American credit card, nor any American debit card to get more cash. There is no US embassy either.

If you lose your passport….you’re screwed.

If you lose your cash….you’re screwed.

I don’t really have any tips on what to do if that happens….so just don’t do it.

Fortunately, Cuba is absurdly cheap. Good rooms can be anywhere from $10-30/night, and most meals (which are fantastic btw) run you about $3 a plate.

Just keep your wits about you, crime on tourists is extremely rare as it basically equals life in prison for a Cuban. Keep your money in multiple places, and don’t end up looking like this:

From the Museum of the Revolution.
Pro-Tip: Don’t pay them the extra fee to take your camera in the museum. This is the only picture worth taking and it is in the lobby.

lways open the box first.

This is an example of a horrible mistake you should never make in a foreign country, except that it has a happy ending. Spoiler alert: I’m not in a Cuban prison.

My friend and I got to Cuba and ended up staying in this fantastic Casa Particular (basically a B&B style establishment, really the only way to stay anywhere in Cuba) called the Purple House. It was run by this wonderfully nice guy named Alejandro. He showed us around Havana, told us what things to see, and even set us up with a place to stay in Vinales. We stayed at his recommendation in Vinales and it was fantastic. The home cooked meals were to die for, the location was great, everything was perfect.

The view from our Casa Particular in Vinales

We decided we would stay with Alejandro in Havana again when we went back, so the woman who we were staying with asked us a favor. She asked me if I could take a box of fruit to Alejandro. Naturally I agreed, given that they had been so nice and neither of us had very much luggage. So the next morning she handed me a medium sized, sealed cardboard box that weighed about 20 pounds. So we walk to the bus station and wait for our Greyhound-like bus to go back to Havana.

It only hit me as I see the bus attendant loading this cardboard box (with Sam Cantor written on it in giant letters in sharpie) that I had never actually LOOKED inside the box. She told me it was fruit……but was it? I had no idea. And now it was below the bus, stamped with my name on it. Sure I had the lady’s business card, Alejandro’s business card, and their names, but regardless of what that box contained, I was bearing complete responsibility of the legality of the contents within.

Thus began what I can describe as the most stressful 3 hours of my life. I began to imagine all kinds of scenarios from the box simply containing fruit like they said, to it containing a bunch of drugs and me being caught in a complicated tourist-trap drug smuggling operation and me spending the rest of my life in a Cuban prison. My friend did her best to try and calm me down, which only yielded an extremely stressed and hushed utterance of: “IT’S NOT YOUR NAME ON THE FUCKING BOX!”

Finally we got to Havana, and took a taxi to Alejandro’s and I dropped off the most hated thing in all of my existence. This stupid box.

He accepted it with a humble thanks, and then showed us to his nearby friend’s Casa Particular as he was full. Before we left, I asked him what was in the box and he let me open it……….

4 frozen pineapples.

:/

Pineapples.

I couldn’t decide if I was relieved that it was nothing all along or annoyed that I had been paranoid over nothing.

The point is, when you are traveling abroad, always remember that courtesy should not come with ignorance, and that no matter how stressed you just were, some mojitos and good Cubans fixes everything.

Viva la Revolucion!

You can’t set anything in stone in Nicaragua. For the most part, Central America as a whole is like this, but Nicaragua takes it to the extreme.

If you are a type A, everything-and-everyone-on-time kind of person, make sure to pack extra chill pills for down here. If your trip and mindset are not flexible, you will lose your mind and not enjoy anything.

Sometimes you get to a hotel after you called to make sure they have space only to find they have no rooms. It happens, just find another hotel. Sometimes you get to your room and some of the features advertised don’t work/aren’t there. Politely ask for another room and if they don’t work there simply let it go, because chances are none of the rooms work.

These are the “hot showers” that they have. This particular one was ghetto-rigged to the point that any water that came out of the shower head in an unbroken stream was completely electrified.
The solution? I took a shower squatting down.

You always need to keep in mind the difference in mentality between a U.S. hotel and a Central American hotel. Most of them are not run by driven entrepreneurs looking to maximize profits by being the best hotel around. Instead they are run by some family who has a very laid back lifestyle and runs the hotel as a means of subsistence and probably has no idea what their profit margin is, if they even make a profit. When you understand this, their inherent lack of capitalistic competitive edges like excellent services, working rooms and up to date contact info make a lot more sense.

If you find out that your igloo randomly doesn’t have electricity, don’t be afraid to ask for one that does.

Furthermore, when you understand this, you realize how futile and misguided it is to quibble over amenities. Most of the places where these are issues are generally situated around beautiful natural landmarks anyways, so you should really focus your energy on climbing the volcano or admiring the beauty of the lake next to you.