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Return Hell

We check out of our room in Varadero Cuba at about noon on Sunday, after spending a fabulous week in the sun with some friends, get into our traveling clothes, and continue to hang out sampling the wonderful ambiance of the resort, not to mention the delicious rum drinks. Weíre picked up at our hotel at about 6:30 Sunday evening. We go to the airport, a short trip of about 15 or 20 minutes. We get there just in time as itís starting to rain. We line up to check our bags in, which takes about an hour. Then we go through security, which takes another hour. Finally we get to the departure lounge. I buy a few cans of Cristal beer, and wait. The flight is supposed to leave at 10:30 p.m. The schedule on the monitors shows it to be on time. 10:30 comes & goes, 11:00 comes & goes, as does 11:30 and 12:00 midnight. Shortly after 12 we are told that we have to get our luggage and get on a bus, which will take us to a hotel, the flight is leaving at 11:30 tomorrow morning. Lucky us, our luggage had been left on the tarmac in the rain for several hours while they tried to figure the aircraft out and everything we own is soaking wet. We spend 45 minutes on the bus traveling to a hotel on the Varadero strip, which incidentally is as far away from the airport as you can possibly get and still be on the strip. We are told that the aircraft has a flat tire that they are having some difficulty replacing. Once at the hotel, we line up for another hour to get checked in. We get to our room at 4 a.m. The bus is supposed to pick us up at 10 a.m. Do you think you can sleep? No way, youíre waking up every 15 minutes or so to check the time; after all, you HAVE to make that bus!

At 9:00 we get up & head to the lobby. 5 busses come to pick 195 or so of us up. Another 45 minutes to the airport, another hour to check our bags in, another hour to go through security. It is already past the time that the flight is supposed to leave. At about 1:00 p.m. we are told that the aircraft is still unserviceable. It seems that when the tire blew on landing, some rubber from it was sucked into the engine. We are going to have to get our luggage and go back to a hotel. Our flight is now scheduled to leave at 11:45 tonight! OK, I have to make some phone calls. No cellular service, perfect. I go to the service desk & ask if the telephones will accept my credit card, I have to make some international calls. No, I am told, you have to buy a phone card. OK, no problem, where can I get one? Well, the lady that sells them isnít here today I am informed. Perfect. We wait for Ĺ an hour or so to get our luggage (after going through security again), then as we board the busses are handed a piece of paper. Sorry for the inconvenience, sign this & weíll give you a $125 voucher for our airline. I donít think so! Another 45 minutes back to this hotel, then because they are waiting for us this time, only Ĺ an hour to check in. Itís 30C and humid, the sweat is literally running down in cascades from my pores. Iíve been wearing the same clothes for a while now, and havenít eaten in almost 24 hours. Is the dining room open? No, itís closed, we are too late for lunch (itís now 3 p.m.), and we will have to wait until 6:30. We manage to find a snack bar after dragging our exponentially heavier bags to a room. We sneak in just under the wire as it closes 5 minutes after we get there. Back to the room for a shower, donning the same sweat soaked clothes that weíve been wearing since about noon yesterday, and a cat nap.

Sleep deprived,† (nothing but naps for the last day or so) we head to the lobby at about 8. At this time we are told that our flight is delayed yet again, and the busses instead of picking us up at 9, are now picking us up at 10 p.m. It seems that the aircraft dispatched from Toronto to come & get us (the one in Cuba must really be screwed) also broke down. Another aircraft is sent, a different bigger one. UH OH, I paid extra for emergency row seats, I donít fit in normal aircraft seats. 6í3Ē 237 lbs. No man, normal seats will not work! If this is a different aircraft, will my seat assignment put me in the emergency row? I get hold of the poor harried tour rep. who makes a phone call, gives me a name of the tour rep. at the airport, and assures me there is no problem.

At 10:00p.m., the busses arrive to get us. We travel yet another 45 minutes to the airport, theyíre waiting for us this time, I check with our tour rep., yes no problem, I have confirmed emergency exit seats. Check in is only 20 minutes or so, 10 minutes or so to clear security as we are the only people in the airport. Into the lounge we go. Everything is closed pretty well. Good thing I bought my duty free stuff the first time we were there! We board the aircraft at about 1:00a.m., and I am directed to my seat, strangely enough, NOT an emergency exit seat. No way man! I stand by the emergency row seats & refuse to sit until I get one. The steward is very nice & gets me the seats, trading with someone who was assigned them but who didnít pay extra for them. One problem solved.

We land in Toronto at about 4:00 a.m., going through customs the guy asks us what we have to declare. I think that they were called in JUST for our flight! I say some rum, cigars, a cap, box of dominoes, and a jar of honey. HONEY he says, marking my card with all kinds of red lines. Perfect. We go to the luggage carousel, which spits out about a dozen bags, then inexplicably stops for 20 minutes. Ĺ an hour later we finally get our bags. We get stopped at the final customs check because of all the red marks on our card, but they are tired too, so the guy who is asked to handle us says hen doesnít care & we are let through. A 24 hour shuttle gets us to the hotel we had paid for the previous night at about 5 a.m. We had a reservation last night but our flight was delayed. Sorry, weíre full. Of course you are. We drive back to Stratford, the window open, Iím shaking my head trying to stay awake. Iíve been up for about 22 hours or so and havenít slept fully in ages. At one point I have to stop & walk around for a while to wake up. Iím seeing double at times and driving is a real concentration nightmare. We make it back home at 7:00 a.m.. In bed until noon, then I have to get up so Iíll be able to sleep that night & go to work.

I have to drive Cal back to Kitchener in the afternoon. Zombie like I make the trip. On the way home my exhaust system starts making all kinds of noise. Perfect. I stop & make an appointment for the next day. They call me at lunch the next day, $520. Nice. I go to pay for it & they give me ďgood newsĒ. Itís only $320. What a perfect end to a vacation. I need another one to recover from the trip home!

Filed under Adventures in the Caribbean, Feb 7, 2010
 

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Part 8 - Return

The Friday we're there for the day, but have to leave at 6 p.m. for the airport. We track down the tour rep & book the VIP service. More on that later. We spend the day hanging out at the pool. In the morning though I went to the other hotel, Carisol to check out hats (still no beret for Rob, sorry none to be had) & get my cigars from the hotels cigar guy. We wait & wait & wait. He's not there at the agreed time, the store isn't open. It seems the bus from Santiago has broken down & no one knows when it will arrive. Nancy leaves to hang out at the beach or the pool, I stay for a while. After almost an hour I give up & leave. Later in the day I went back & he was there. I pay him & get my cigars. He cautions me about leaving the packages sealed to get past customs at the airport, and gives me another one for free. I end up getting Cal a hat in our hotel store. Pretty slim pickings for souvenirs I'll tell ya. We see our bartender friend, Francisco, & give him a gift of a Bandana. In the afternoon I get him to give me the recipe for Havana Special & tip him yet again (he didn't want to give away trade secrets...yeah right). He counters with a free bottle of rum for us. I ask him if he needs any soap or toothpaste for his family & he says, no, all he wants is my friendship. Nice guy. I get his address & we sent him an elastic bandage (tensor wrap) for his knee. He asked if I had one & I said that I would send him one. It's almost time to leave & we're supposed to meet the knife sheath guy at the lobby bar. We go there & he's not there. Bummer, but we still have a few hours. We are walking back to the pool area (we seemed to spend most of our time there) when we bump into him. I ask about the sheath & he says that the guy hasn't made it yet, then takes off his sheath, the one I was admiring in the first place, & gives it to me! He says that the one his friend is making he will take. Now THAT'S a souvenir!

We get on the bus at 6:00 having made some sandwiches at lunch for a snack. Angel, is the tour guide on the bus! We snap his picture and send him a copy also. We get to the airport, & this is where the VIP service comes in, we get off the bus & there is a woman standing there with a VIP sign. We see her, give her our travel documents, the $20 VIP fee each, and the $25 departure tax each and our bags are whisked away. After clearing the metal scanner we are ushered into a private lounge, where there is an open bar, a television, leather couches etc.. We don't have to line up anywhere. Our tax is paid for us, our passports stamped, & our bags cleared through customs, our boarding passes are returned to us & we're good to go. We watched Fidel on TV & relaxed for a few hours, had a snooze etc.. Then we were escorted out of the terminal building & onto the plane. Just us, no lineups. We were the only ones on the tarmac, being escorted alone to the plane. I said to Nancy, ?Look, we?re being ?escorted? out of the country!? LOL. The Stewardess even asked us why we were alone & so special. Apparently, this VIP service was VERY new! I dunno if it was worth $20 a pop, but it was nice not having to line up.

The flight home was a nightmare. I was sick as a dog. The stewardess even offered me a row of seats to myself to lie down in. I didn't want to move at all, I might have lost my cookies just standing up. Then they served dinner. You guessed it, my favorite, pasta. Not only pasta, some pasta with some vomity smelling cheese sauce on it. The smell alone wanted to make me heave. Needless to say I avoided it & skipped dinner. Finally we landed about 2 in the morning or so, breezed through customs. The only question the customs agent asked was if we were bringing over $10,000 back into the country. PPPHHHHTTT!! Yeah, I wish!

Off to the hotel after searching for the courtesy phone to call the shuttle for 15 minutes, & to bed about 3.30 a.m.. We get up in the morning with the idea of swimming in the pool & a sauna or something. My sunburn is still pretty tender and the pool doesn't look very inviting compared to the paradise we've just come from. We decide to come home after an expensive breakfast, arriving just after noon on Saturday the 18th. I take the 35mm film into Carmens, the slightly pricey place here in town & get it back. Problem is they do a good job. Great pics though. I take the APS into Zehrs, much cheaper. My first experience with Zehrs. They manage to expose an entire roll, ruining it completely. I've sent it back to Fuji to see what they say, but Zehrs gave me my photo finishing on the other 2 rolls for free AND 3 free rolls of film, so I'm thinking that they know it's their fault. The pictures don't look nearly as nice as the 35mm ones. I had a couple of reprints of the 35mm done by Zehrs and they screwed those up too. Not even close to the original. I guess that's it for them.

All in all a great trip though, a place we both agree we would like to go back to. We would recommend this place to anyone. I guess I can get those missing pictures next year. :-)

Filed under Adventures in the Caribbean, Oct 10, 2005
 

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Part 7 - Snorkeling

Thursday brings another sunny warm day (what a shame! LOL) & we are scheduled for a 1/2-day snorkeling trip. We board the bus at the usual time and drive to the sailboat moored a few miles down the road. After getting on, we think it's pretty full, but them MORE people arrive. Yikes, we had over 30 people crammed on that boat. Anyway, I had taken a Graval that morning just to be sure. This poor girl on the boat didn't & was green by the time we got to the reef to snorkel. It started out by clouding over a bit, but by the time we got to the place where we could go swimming, the sun had come out. I jumped in and took my waterproof APS camera with me. Within minutes I had snapped off an entire roll. The water wasn't as clear as it could have been, the reef where I went last year in Varadero was better, but still it was interesting. I paddled around for a bit. Nancy went in but seems to have a problem with being able to breathe while your head is underwater. I understand, as I'm the same way with scuba diving. I can use up an hour?s worth of air in 5 minutes! There were some wrecks there & on top of the hill in the bay we were in was a Cuban guard tower, marking the edge of the American base at Guantanimo Bay. We had a nice swim & then back on the boat (open bar) for the trip back to the marina. I took my shirt off for about 20 minutes, 1/2 an hour, then put it back on. Big mistake. That's all it took for a major burn.

We were back at the hotel for lunch, the burn hadn't set in yet so we went to the beach after lunch. I put on my flippers, mask & snorkel & went snorkeling off the beach. It was amazing. I wish I had more film! I had shot my last roll of APS that morning & the hotel didn't have any. Bummer. The fish were amazing. Tons of them, They would swim right up to you. No real coral reefs, but way more fish than the morning swim. I forgot to wear a T-shirt while paddling around, so that added to my burn, which I still didn't know I had at that point.

Later on we're walking by the cigar desk at the hotel, our hotel, and not the other one, Carisol where I have the cigars being made, & Nancy has the idea of asking the cigar guy for some glue. So I do & low & behold he has some sugar or starch based stuff that he gives me a blob of & I use it to finally glue that damn gov't sticker on the box of black market cigars.

Back at the pool we met this couple from Waterloo. The woman is the owner of Molly Blooms in Waterloo. Her husband was a Scot & quite a hoot! I was starting to notice the burn at this point. After an afternoon of boozing beside the pool we took some photos of the sunset & went to dinner. Bought some rum in the hotel store to bring back, and checked out hats for Cal. Not much to choose from but I think I've seen a nicer one at the other hotel. The show that night was some pool synchronized swimming show, or was that the day before? It had all started to blur into one big long holiday by now, the days were becoming indistinct. That's what you go for though. That's when you know you're starting to relax I figure. A week just isn't long enough, but I've found 2 weeks to be too long. A smart tour operator would offer 10-day vacations but I have yet to see one. Anyway, Nancy traded gifts with one of the swimmers at the show. She gave a bunch of pens & some hair conditioner & got this wobbly head thing with a chip in the paint that says "Cuba". LOL

Filed under Adventures in the Caribbean, Sep 29, 2005
 

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Part 6 - La Gran Piedra

After the adventure in Santiago, we were pleasantly surprised to find out that our tour guide from that trip, a fellow called Angel, (pronounced anhill, or anheel) would again be our guide for the morning on our excursion to La Gran Piedra, the Big Rock, the highest point in Cuba. You sure have to climb a lot of stairs to get to it. We leave the hotel at the usual time for excursions, 8:30 a.m. after another great breakfast. The drive in takes us past several points of interest and then a long windy road up the mountain, around & around, back & forth, washed out bits of road, sheer drops, & the bus in first gear most of the way. The entire time there is this annoying woman at the back of the bus yakking away as Angel tries to tell us a bit about the local countryside & points of interest we pass. She just won't shut up. Her poor husband. We stop about 1/2 way up to examine some coffee beans on the plants & look at a some of the locals selling crafts, fruit, & coffee. We buy a small bag of coffee beans for $2 and take some pictures. I have worn my boots today, as my feet were a disaster yesterday in my sandals. To add to my woes, by favouring my foot, I have cramped my calf & blistered my heel. LOL, what a mess. I look like Mr. "I'll never ever leave you alone" from yesterday & the hotel hobbling along. Still, the boots add some more support & despite a noticeable limp, it does actually feel a bit better. We continue up the mountain in first gear & arrive at a converted coffee plantation that is now a botanical garden. Gorgeous plants & a breathtaking view. More pictures. Recent rains washed out the road so we had to walk the last km or so to the gardens. The entire time Mrs. Gabby is still prattling on. Imagine the world?s most annoying voice. That was it, only worse. Loud & obnoxious, kinda like the classic ?ugly American?! We tried to lose her but she kept on catching up with us. Several other of the tour members were noticing her & making aside comments too. Anyway, we get back on the bus then first gear to another plantation, this time abandoned. More pictures. I bought a walking stick/cane from a vendor there. Most were all scratched up from resting on the stone wall & being handled repeatedly by us tourists. I picked the best of the bunch and talked him down from $15 to $10. Back on the bus to the top. Well, as far as the busses go anyway. There were over 400 stairs next, (457 Nancy says, I think he said 474, regardless, there were A LOT!) cut into the side of the mountain we had to climb to get to the top. Thank goodness Mrs. gabby decided not to climb them. We left her behind & Nancy & I climbed up. At the top there is a steep ladder attached to the rock & we climbed that, about 30 or 40 rungs, the same as a ladder you would find on a boat only longer. Once we get there, spectacular view. I took a series of digital pictures 360o. Nancy said she can stitch them together to make a panorama. Once there though, after the exhausting climb, the place was swarming with wasps. Well, you know Nancy & wasps. Her without her kit too. After taking some pictures it was time to descend. Nancy is almost catatonic with fear due to the steepness of the ladder. I helped her down & then she was all right. We went back down the 400 or so stairs and at the bottom in a little restaurant were more canes & carvings. MUCH nicer than the one I got for the same $. Figures. Oh well, I got beat for that mask on the beach, so I bought it when I could.

In the bus on the way back Mrs. gabby is asking what everything is. LOL, these were the same things the tour guide was pointing out while she was yakking away on the way there. Everyone was snickering. Serves her right. We were thinking, Oh boy, we only have another 1/2 hour with her & then we'll never ever have to see her again. Guess what? Not only was she staying at our hotel, she lives in STRATFORD!!! YYYAAARRGGHHH!! We caught a glimpse of her briefly one other day at the resort, & she lives just outside of town so I doubt if we'll run into her again. What a joke though.

The afternoon, after patching my ailing foot, I decide screw this, I'm going swimming. I put a fresh bandage on & some moleskin to cover it & limped down to the pool. Ahhhh, blessed water. A pleasant afternoon was had by all at the swim up bar. :-)

The usual early evening cocktails at the lobby bar, but while there, the Cuban bartender had this really great looking hand tooled knife pouch on his belt. I asked him where he got it & he said that they were just for Cubans, not for tourists, a friend of his makes them to order. In asked if he could make me one. No problem, $2!!! Great, he said he would have it for us Friday.

Dinner, for the first time was lackluster. Tasty enough but it just lacked something. Too bad, it was our anniversary & we had tried to book the grill, but we were the only people who did so it didn't open. Nancy had the idea of going to the Italian a la carte, but you know my feelings about pasta. Might as well eat cardboard. We decided to forgo something that one of us would probably not enjoy at all.

Filed under Adventures in the Caribbean, Sep 26, 2005
 

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Part 5 - Day Trip

Now we're into Tuesday & the full day trip to Santiago (time flies eh?) The bus ride to the city takes an hour, with a few stops to point out some various places that were important in the Cuban revolution. We stopped at some tree that there was a treaty signed between Cuba & Spain in the late 1800s when Cuba won independence from Spain. We are immediately accosted by a street hustler who thrusts this little wooden dolphin at me saying it is a gift, but could I give him some money to buy some soap. I don't know this guy from shit so no way. I get his address & once back on the bus the tour guide says he should have warned us about "those people" Stay away from them & don't give them anything he says. Next we tour San Juan Hill, the one Teddy Roosevelt & the Roughriders were famous for. I took some nice pictures, but alas these were on the film that Zehrs toasted so I'll never see them. (More on that later) We go to a school & Nancy got some nice shots of the children in their uniforms, I got some street scenes. Next, to a changing of the guard ceremony at some Cuban national heroes tomb. More pictures. Nearby we go to a rum distillery where we are introduced to Los Marinos Ron Palmas Paticruzado (crossed legged rum). Perhaps the sweetest tasting rum I have ever had. We should have brought back more, delicious just by itself. There's a nearby cigar factory. We go in, but everyone has the day off for some reason. Of course, being the tallest in the group I am immediately hit upon by some characters in the back that want to sell me some cigars on the side. Up for an adventure I briefly leave the tour group & follow these fellows into a side room where they show me packages & boxes of cigars offered at amazing discounts. Among their offerings, they want $7 for a 5 pack of Montecristo #4 (they are $18 Cdn. each, (per cigar), up here). I get the pack for $5. Sealed with the Govt. sticker & all. Then back to the tour group just in time for the guy giving a demonstration of cigar making to present me with a piece of his handiwork. LOL. We then go to this fort: Castillo Del Morro. It's hotter than Hell by now & with all the stone around it's like an oven. Plenty of street vendors selling carvings, but they're all the same & really not worth having, unless you're into that sort of thing I guess. They wanted an arm and a leg for them too. MUCH MUCH more expensive than Havana or even Varadero. Took some pics, back to the bus to take us to lunch. We board a boat & go to this little island filled with shanties called Cayo Granma. It?s named after the boat Castro returned to Cuba in at the start of the revolution. It has a restaurant where we are accosted yet again by a couple of hustlers trying to sell seashells while trying to avoid being seen by the restaurant staff. The guy sitting next to me buys some but we don't. After lunch its back to the dock.

My foot is killing me by now, walking is extremely painful and I?m heavily limping. We go to this house in downtown Santiago that was built in the 1500s. The oldest house in Cuba supposedly. I take a snap shot of a 500-year-old helmet & a sword & one of the guys in our group who had done the tour before advises me that they charge you money for taking pictures. YIKES! I put my camera away. We escape the tour without paying for the illicit pictures and are left alone for 45 minutes to "explore". Well, guess who's sitting right there in the main square? The old crippled fucker who we couldn't get rid of at the hotel. Man oh man. I can't win with this guy. He's on me like THAT. ?Let me show you around? (you can hardly understand him), ?I'll show you good stuff?.... What can I say? Man, we?re with a tour group! Finally we ditch him at the edge of the square saying we're with a tour group & go down a block or so. The architecture reminds me very much of Cartegena Columbia, a real atmosphere. Here our guide leaves us after giving me directions to a street market. I still haven't found a perpetual calendar for Andrew. We go back to the edge of the square...who's there? You guessed it. Mr. "I'm never going to leave you alone forever & ever amen" Finally, I have to say in a stern voice, as we're walking away & he's STILL following us prattling on about how good his cigars are & how great a guide he is, POR FAVOR SENOR....NO!! We finally make our escape. We find the street market and are immediately accosted by several people begging for money. You have to ignore them with a polite por favor, no. You can't help everyone. We are not ATMs. If they help me, they get helped back, but I don't take kindly to being accosted. I suppose we must stand out as gringo tourists. I?ve never thought of myself as rich, but I guess it?s all relative. Nothing here, we get a bongo for Andrew. Still no glue to be found. We high tail it to the top floor of a nearby hotel & have a beer while taking pictures of Santiago from the rooftop, free of harassment. We go back to the bus, and have to wait a couple of minutes for the guide to arrive. I mean a couple of minutes, 2 or 3. We are hit up for cigars again. Unbelievable. LOL

Filed under Adventures in the Caribbean, Sep 18, 2005
 

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