The Black Hand of Havana

“What was I supposed to do, man? He offered me $7 an hour, when I knew I could make over $1,000 a night selling drugs, you know what I mean?” Alberto laughs, exposing his last three teeth.

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The biography of Alberto, “Mano Negra,” is both fascinating and sad. After spending a couple of hours in his company we were left speechless with sorrow. And confused, because how could we feel sorry for a murderer? No doubt, he had brought his bad fortune on himself.

Alberto was never good for anything. Growing up he was lazy, didn’t want to work and spent his time looking for trouble. In Fidel Castro’s Cuba, unemployment was a crime, and soon enough Alberto was thrown into prison for being a dangerous (i.e., idle) person, serving a 4-year sentence.

But then, out of the blue, his fortune changed. In 1980, when tens of thousands of Cubans were fleeing their country in boats chartered by Cuban-Americans, Fidel Castro saw his chance to embarrass its eternal antagonist. To rid his country of thousands of dangerous criminals and the mentally ill, Castro released them from prison and shipped them across the ocean to the United States.  A heartfelt gift that not only embarrassed the Jimmy Carter, the then-president of the United States, but robbed him of the his second term.

Alberto ended up in Arkansas with a lovely Catholic family who helped him organize welfare checks and food stamps. God had thrown Alberto a lifeline and given him a chance to start on a new path. But for the 28-year Alberto, fresh out from prison, freedom was blinding. Instead of building the foundation for a new life, all Alberto wanted to do was to party from morning to night. The handsome Cuban got drunk, conquered women and made new friends in the nightclubs and bars of the early 80’s Arkansas. He tried drugs – marijuana, cocaine and crack – and just like Tony Montana (played by Al Pacino) in Scarface he learned how to make easy money to support his lifestyle by selling the illegal goods. So when his honest American friend offered him a good job with the decent salary, Alberto declined. With $70,000 in his pocket, he was already making good money.

And that’s where his luck ran out. In 1983, in a heated agreement with another crack-head, Alberto raised his gun and shot his friend. For some unknown reason, he wasn’t charged with homicide. But a few months later, in Tacoma, Washington, he shot and killed another man. This time the law wouldn’t look the other way and sentenced Alberto to ten years in Folsom state, a maximum security prison in California. But Alberto is a friendly guy and made new contacts. When he was released he just continued peddling the same merchandise. Only this time, the police had him under surveillance, and he was caught with 7 oz of cocaine and $8,000 in cash. The US authorities, who had finally realized what category of refugees Fidel Castro had sent them, made a list of all the Cuban delinquents who had managed to screw up their private American Dream and deported them straight back to their communist hell.

“We will give you $25,000 if you go,” the Americans promised. But all Alberto got was 100 Cuban pesos (about $4) and a set of clothes from the Cuban government. Then he was left to fade away on the streets of Havana, sleeping on park benches and scavenging for food and clothes out of the garbage cans.

“Did you ever go back to drug-dealing?” I asked.

Alberto shook his head. “No, the laws are too strict here, it’s not worth it. But you know what? Everyone says I should just forget about those guys that I killed, that it was so long ago. But I can’t. I’ve killed two human beings. I know what I’ve done and I’m paying for it every single day of my life.”

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The Never-Ending Revolution

“Welcome to hell!” The Cuban man laughs and extinguishes his cigarette on the stoop where he sits, adding to the ever growing piles of garbage on the streets of Havana.

When we ask a thirteen-year old kid, “Are you happy?”, the answer is a nod and a shake of his head. Yes and no. Yes, because he is a child, can play, and has his whole life ahead of him. No, because he is always in want of more. More (and better) food. Clothes without rips and shoes without holes. A roof over his head that doesn’t threaten to fall down on him while he is asleep.

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Fifty-six years after the Cuban revolution, where Fidel Castro, his brother Raul and Che Guevara, joined by hundreds of rebels, claimed the power, the failure of its ideology is a fact. While most Cubans will agree that the revolution was necessary to get rid of the corrupt president Batista who ruled the country with aid of the American Mafia, they’ve also had enough. Life is tough. There is a lack of everything but rum, pork and white bread. One has to stand in line, sometimes for hours, just to buy basic necessities such as toilet paper and soap. And that is only on those days when they are available. Most of the time they’re not. Similar to the once living standards of the former Soviet Union, life here sucks.

Still, the battle-cry of “Viva La Revolucion” is painted on the walls of kindergartens, schools, bus stations and factories. Che Guevara’s face adorns buildings, mopeds and t-shirts. And the TV-anchors mention the revolution at least once in every clip, whether they speak about sports, politics or music. The Cuban brains are washed, tumble dried and ironed from morning to night, day in day out, year after year.

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It’s a land not devastated by war, but by the senseless governing of a selfish leader, who has let fertile fields overgrow and left his people starving. Where you have to stand in line for everything, every day. And the taxes you pay don’t depend on your income, but on your trade; you’ll pay the same amount whether you make any money or none. And although anyone can buy a new car for the reasonable price of USD $250,000, with the average monthly salary at $25/month, it would take a mere 833 years to pay it off. That is, if you forsake eating and other “hobbies.”

With increasing tourism, this will undoubtedly change. You can already see the cracks in the establishment, brought on by the loosening ties on free enterprise. Since Raul Castro took over the reins in 2006, the country has made small but firm steps away from communism toward capitalism. Despite ridiculous taxes, any cook can now open his own restaurant. Home owners are allowed to rent out rooms to foreigners. Bicycle-rickshaws can give rides to tourists. And people are catching on to the fact that providing good service will make them more money. The locals may never be as rich as the foreigners with their fancy sun-glasses and smart phones, but at least they may be able to afford good quality shampoo or an hour on the internet (after standing in line for a few hours to access the state-owned service). And as the world witnessed during the imploding of the Soviet Union, when you give people a finger of freedom, they will grab the entire hand and will never let go.

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So does money equal happiness? Of course not. But as a European or American it’s easy to forget how lucky we are to be able to fulfill our basic needs. How fortunate we are to have access to the internet, free speech and news from the rest of the world. How great it is that we can travel when we want, where we want. And vote in democratic elections.

A fisherman in the French-flavored town of Cienfuegos confides: “All the tourists think Cuba is paradise, but it really isn’t.”

No, Cuba isn’t paradise. Although “hell” might be a slight exaggeration.

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This is Cuba

The lazy rays of the morning sun caress the dilapidated buildings of Havana, as if offering them a last sigh of hope before they crumble to dust. In the hallways, the scent of guanabana and pineapple lingers, and in the distance, the click-clacking of horse hooves on cobble stones remind you that you’re not in New York City any more. This is Cuba.

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Strolling down narrow sidewalks, you pass women in snug lycra dresses queuing up to buy eggs and pig trotters. A man sticks out his head from a hole-in-the wall shop, beckoning you to buy one of his pork sandwiches for 25 cents. You decline with a smile; God knows what part of the animal was used for that funny-looking meat.

High above, long clothes lines adorned with jeans, shirts and underwear flutter in the wind, keeping company with the grandmothers who spend their entire lives on the balconies, gossiping with their neighbors about the life below. They watch you take a photo and ask if you could spare some money, perhaps even a soap? As you turn away, you bump into an electric blue 1953 Buick in immaculate shape, and wonder why five slaughtered pigs have been heaped into the back seat.

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“Senor, taxi?” You shake your head at the young bicycle rickshaw driver. “No, not now, thanks. I’m just walking.” And you wonder if it was wise to tie such a heavy boom box to his bike, adding a few extra pounds to the cargo, then you realize that music will make the day go by so much faster. Through an open door, you glimpse a family crouched up in front of the TV, while their maid is scrubbing the floor. Next-doors, the bar is packed with men, women and children at 11 o’clock in the morning. Ten cents will buy you a shot of cheap rum, but a can of soda costs six times more. You wonder if the government trying to keep their people drunk so they will forget they are hungry.

Shouts of “panadeeero” and “leeeechuga” wake you from your contemplations; peddlers of newly baked bread and lettuce pass by with their wooden carts laden with merchandise. You’re starting to get hungry. What is there to eat today? You opt for a sandwich with cheese that most likely did not come from a cow or goat or any of those usual suspects. It just tastes funny.

The salsa music that flows from the tourist bar is inviting. You give up your pledge to live like a local and settle down at a table among other non-Cubans to enjoy your cup of strong coffee.

It tastes just wonderful.

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Top 10 Things to Pack On A Long Trip

Packing for a long-haul trip is very different than for a weekly getaway. Every ounce counts when you have to schlep your backpack around on trains and buses, and walking from hotel to hotel looking for the best deal. You need to choose carefully what to bring in order to pack a compact bag.

Everyone is different, some make do one t-shirt and two pairs of underwear while others prefer a wider choice of outfits. Some people travel ultra-light with a small day-pack, while others require some modern conveniences to make the trip more enjoyable. The list below is a result of having traveled on a tight budget for several months in both Africa and Asia. I could swear by this list.

  1. Microfiber towels. Not all hotels (hostels/guest houses) supply towels. A microfiber towel may have a bigger price-tag, but it’s extremely light and dries in no time – even in humid conditions. Make sure it’s big enough to cover your A great brand is Seat to Summit.
  2. Silk sleeping bag liner. Most hotels provide a sheet and a pillow, but sometimes that’s all they provide. Sometimes there’s complete bedding, but of dubious cleanliness. In those cases, a silk sheet is indispensable; feather light and super-compact into an apple-sized package. It is easily washed and dries in minutes. We have used Grand Trunk Silk Sleep Sacks for years.
  3.  Pocket knife. Millions of applications – to cut open packages, peel fruit, cut off ropes, open beer and wine bottles, fasten screws and clean your nails. Etc, etc, etc. Victorinox Swiss Army knives  are the best, but any cheaper brand will also do.
  4.  Spoon, fork and a small plastic bowl with a lid. There are going to be days when you just want to prepare your own food, like oatmeal or yogurt with fruit, or a tuna sandwich. Disposable cutlery breaks easily and can be difficult to find, especially in countries that only use chopsticks. Bring your own spoon, fork and bowl to make your own meals once in a while. Light My Fire has a cool
  5.  Whether you need to cool off with a wet scarf around your neck, shield your head from the rays of the burning sun, or just need a napkin or hand towel – bandanas fit in your pocket, or can be tied to your belt, and are easily washed. You can buy bandanas pretty much anywhere.
  6.  A roll of isolation tape. Fixes cuts in your backpack. Temporarily mends your shoes. Holds up the mosquito net. You won’t travel far before you need it. Make sure you buy a good quality roll of duct tape, such as Reflectix.
  7.  Mosquito net. Keeps malarial mosquitoes, flies, spiders and cockroaches out of your bed. In countries with high prevalence of malaria, the local markets sell great nets for a dollar or two. If you want to get one ahead of time, a Mombasa net should do the job. Make sure you buy a net with cords from four corners, so that you can hang it easily, no matter what is available in the room. Don’t forget to bring extra string.
  8.  Walkie-Talkies. If there are two (or more) of you traveling together, walkie-talkies are a great way to communicate in distances up to a few kilometers. On many occasions one person will have to stay in place with the heavy backpacks, as the other goes looking for a hotel, train tickets, a taxi, and so on. It’s much more convenient and cheaper than SIM cards and work from the moment you land. We like Motorola’s
  9.  iPad Mini (or other preferred tablet). On journeys to more than one country, the tablet can hold all travel guides in eBook format. No need to print out electronic visas, flight reservations or hotel vouchers. You can take screen shots of Google maps, online directions, wrestling schedules, phrases in local languages, etc. – you’ll never have to take notes again. And of course you can access email and the internet in all the free wifi restaurants, bars and cafes around the world, and take photos with your new local friends. I’m not a dedicated Apple-fan, but the iPad Mini was invaluable on our last 5-month trip in Asia.
  10.  Business cards. Bring the ones you have or have some simple cards printed with your name, email address, blog or web site URL, Twitter and Facebook handles to share with to people you meet. Some travel acquaintances grow into lifelong friendships, and you never know when you will meet again and where. Vistaprint is an inexpensive printer.

And, personally, I would recommend bringing at least two pairs of underwear.

Getting Ready to Enter the Danger Zone!

“So you’re going to South Africa? Aren’t you scared? People get shot there every day!”

“Did you hear about the plane that crashed in Libya? It came from South Africa!”

“I heard of a guy who went swimming in South Africa, and almost died from a parasite infestation!”

Yes, I’ve heard all that. Every single day. In fact, of anything anyone says to me about travelling to South and West Africa, 98% is warnings. I shrug it off, people are always scared of what they don’t know.

But then it hit me – what if I’m being overly confident? What if I’m one of those persons who hide their head in the sand and refuse to see the dangers? Maybe. But I don’t think so. I guess only time will tell.

As I said to Eduardo, I’m not really scared of getting sick or being mugged. I hope it doesn’t happen, but it won’t be the end of the world. It won’t stop me from eating street foods, travelling to remote locations or interacting with the locals. Getting kidnapped is another story, however, so the thought of going to Northern Mali and crossing the border into Algeria through the operating grounds of the Al Qaida does raise a red flag.

Then again, when we’re there, curiosity might overpower the sense of fear.

I’m not promising nothing. And I’m not scared.

Cape Town – in which country are we, again?

Cape Town is like a parallel Universe. It looks like Anytown; Auckland, Amsterdam, Zurich, and Boston. The city is clean, organized and modern – it doesn’t even have a unique smell . But beyond the brilliant surface it really is South Africa, the Rainbow Nation.

Our trip started two days ago with a 20-hour flight from New York to Cape Town via Johannesburg. Arriving in Cape Town, Eduardo’s first comment was “It doesn’t look interesting.” And it doesn’t. The personality is more British/Dutch than African, with its terraced Victorian houses, boxy gray office buildings and glass-walled high-rises. They even have a Waterfront shopping center that looks like a larger New York South Street Seaport.We could just as well be in New England, and all the Africans on the streets could be immigrants.
On the way from the airport, we passed by a shantytown with thousands of plywood huts with corrugated tin roofs, which sadly is more what we expected South Africa to look like. But downtown Cape Town, cowering beneath the impressive flat-topped Table mountain, looks more like a brand new doll house.

I’m not sure if it’s because I grew up reading white South African writer Andre Brink’s books about (and against) the apartheid era, but it’s hard not to notice the divide between the rich, mostly white people who own businesses and the poor, mostly blacks and coloreds (an accepted name for the rest). It just seems unfair. With only 20 years since the dissolution of apartheid, large steps have been made, and there’s a definite respect between the different groups. But I guess I just wish the power would lie with the original countrymen.

Thank heavens for the World Cup! Because with the World Cup all South Africans seem to come together in their support for Bafana Bafana! Go South Africa!

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World Cup Fever!

Since first landing in Johannesburg, one thing is clear – this country is ablaze with World Cup fever! Everywhere you go businesses are promoting the World Cup. All advertising has a flavor of football, shop windows display South African flags with digital countdowns of days and hours until kickoff. People on the street are wearing their yellow Bafana Bafana t-shirts in support of the South African national team. All pubs, restaurants and shops show football matches on their flat screen TVs.

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In Cape Town, street signs are pointing towards the stadium and the locations for the free public screenings of the matches. In the ticket sales hub, long lines of folks were camping out for two days in wait for releases of new tickets for the Cape Town matches where most of the South Africa matches will take place. The food stores even have free tastings of foods from all the 32 participating countries, one country per day – today Swiss cheese fondue, tomorrow Slovakian potato cakes.

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Even the newspapers are full of World Cup stories, for example that the sangomas, healers, were brought to the Johannesburg stadium, Soccer City, to bless the venue and the World Cup, and make sure that everything goes well and stays secure.

Two days ago, we spent a whole day in line with a bunch of South Africans, waiting to buy more tickets. Although the wait was long, this was one of the highlights of the trip so far. The South Africans are good people. They are friendly, calm, patient, and generous. As they say, they don’t expect any terrorist acts during the World Cup because they don’t have any bones to pick with any other countries. They just get along with everyone.

We’re getting increasingly caught up in the excitement. Thirteen more days until the games start. And we just picked up our tickets two days ago. Sheer joy y muchos goles!!

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