Can Americans go to Cuba?

Can Americans go to Cuba? Sort of, not really but yes. After President Obama’s state of the nation address it’s clear that the sanctions with Cuba will soon be lifted. So, before it turns into Disneyland complete with a Starbuck’s on every corner it might be a good idea to head down. I spoke to ‘someone’ who happens to be an American citizen and recently visited The Pearl of the Antilles.

I always wanted to visit Cuba, the question was always in the back of my mind, can Americans go to Cuba?
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Coming through customs was not unlike customs elsewhere in the world. Long lines, lots of questions, photos taken, tired anxious people in a hurry and a lot of very official looking people standing around as if guarding Fort Knox. There were however two things that stood out as being different, one was asking have you been to Africa and do you know anyone who has been to Africa or have you come into contact with anyone who has been. We had been advised to keep all answers simple and direct so my answer was no. The second thing that was in fact very different was they didn’t stamp or mark anything in our passport. We had acquired a separate paper, which was in fact our visa, that was stamped and torn in half which I assume we need to keep as an exit visa as well. As a side note; we encountered a truck load of problems trying to leave Mexico because I could not find my half of my entry visa. It cost us literally hours of running around and a hefty fine to get a replacement.
 can americans go to cuba
As we exited the secure area we looked for someone holding a sign with our name on it, as all very important people have leaving an airport, but none was seen. Our tickets included hotel transfers and the agent assured us there would be said sign. We finally were told to go to bus 194 and it will take us to our hotel. The bus was locked and no one around which gave me time to photograph some of the old cars in the parking lot. An hour and a half later the driver appeared and we left the airport.
can americans go to cuba
People in Mexico told us to take Mexican Passos which are well received in Cuba and according to our currency converter we should get about 750 Cuban pesos for 500  Mexican. You can imagine our surprise when we handed over 500 Mexican and the lady gave us 31 cuc in return, when I asked her about it she said that was the exchange rate 16.84 Mexican to 1 cuc. The Cuban money is not traded on the world market so the only place you can get it is in Cuba. Well there are 2 different currencies used in Cuba the cuc for visitors and the peso used by locals. The cuc at the hotel is traded as 87 cuc for 100 usds, which makes Cuba an expensive vacation spot when compared to Mexico and South America.
can americans go to cuba
The bus driver said that we could drink the water but recommend that we don’t so the first thing we bought with our newly acquired 31 cucs was a 500ml bottle of water for 1-5 cucs. We had a lovely room on the 19th floor of our 1950s built hotel overlooking the sea with a king size bed. It was located in a quiet area on the end of the malecon.
The next morning we set off to explore our area of Havana. One of the things that became apparent very soon was that there are very, very few signs anywhere, no billboards of any kind, no advertising, few names on the buildings, and few street signs. This was a nice change for us, it seemed to create a peaceful, easy on the eye environment without never ending bombardment of neon and giant signage. This however created some challenges when we wanted to find some place specific like a bank or a market or a place to eat. Once while walking along the street we noticed in the distance a few people coming in and out a double doorway and wondering out loud to each other, what is going on over there?
can americans go to cuba
To our surprise a couple of days later we found out that it was a Cuban version of a supermarket. By Cuban version I mean, imagine a small ma and pa run corner store of the 50s. Now take three quarters of the stock away and leave mostly empty shelves with no choice of brand or size of packaging for most products, except rum where there is what seems to be unlimited choice, no fresh fruit or vegetables, kind of like the last days of a closing down sale and you have a state run supermarket Cuban style. It is a very interesting experience. We have an empty bar fridge in our room so we decided to get a couple of beers to have while watching the magnificent sunset from our window.
The supermarket had two choices of beer, sol from Mexico in small bottles and one of their local brands in cans, we went with the local and weren’t disappointed. I have to admit I do remember a time or two when I have wanted to get something in Australia and after being presented with so many choices of product making the decision was so mammoth I came away without anything. By the way you will need your receipt to get out the door, the people checking the bags as you leave are very vigilant and even count the number of items to match the receipt.
can americans go to cuba
Besides the absence of signage there is no visible signs of Americanisation no McDonald’s, no Starbucks, no hungry jacks, no seven elevens, no fast foods, except for the old classic cars there is nothing western here. One of the cab drivers told us that his 54 ford has been in the family since new. His grandfather his father and now he have all used it as a taxi, it is very original and runs like a top. He was able to tell us that all medical expenses are free, rent is subsidised and education through university is paid by the state. A condition of university entrance is that Upon graduating you need to serve somewhere in a state job for 2 years. He has a computer science degree but he chooses to drive his cab.
A very noticeable difference is that a lot of people smoke and there doesn’t seem to be any restrictions placed on lighting up. Cigars are common and can be smelled in most social situations. Passive smoke doesn’t seem to be is considered by anyone.
You don’t need to walk very far in town to hear music. Residence, restaurants, cars, bars and boom boxes all exude Cuba music. With the music usually comes the dancing, it’s a great environment and a big part of the social interaction. People having fun everywhere we go and it usually includes the whole family and lasts for hours.
can americans go to cuba
Most likely due to the year round warm weather much of the socialising is alfresco style  . Most restaurants and pubs spill out on to the footpath from large sliding doors and windows, which makes walking through Havana such a pleasure and is how we spend the majority of our time. Everywhere we go people are eager to help us with our Spanish and like to use their English.
Unlike Mexico and South America there are few one man small businesses like street food, shoe shiners, sidewalk stalls. Nail salons, hairdressers and vendors of all kinds. There are a few carts with fruit and veggies but they usually look like poor quality and are kind of hard to find.
can americans go to cuba
Living conditions are as varied as most large cities, each neighborhood presents its own unique contribution to the landscape that is Havana. There are a few beautiful majestic well maintained areas but the majority of people live in state owned high density appartments all in various states of disrepair. Built in the 30s,40s and 50s with what appears to be little or no maintaince  since construction, they leave a lot to be desired to the eye. One taxi driver was proud to tell us they since the revolution people were able to buy and sell some select real estate. By looking around and trying to see the big picture it is obvious that little if any funds have been made available to maintain or up grade the standard infer structure. Everywhere you look are signs of decay except for a very few cases where the signs of former glory can still be seen.
can americans go to cuba
The spanish occupied Cuba for 400 years and, not unlike other places in the world they conquered, in that time built many churches and squares with ample seating and full of established shade trees, where people would gather, socialise, eat and shop. There are many great examples of this scattered all throughout Havana. Discovering these little gems is one of the pleasures we enjoy while walking the length and breath of the city, sometimes for blocks and other times for miles.
At this stage we have seen very few mobile phones and we are yet to find an area with wifi. Be that as it may, good or bad or whatever your take on it is, it seems to us like a breath of fresh air.
It is hard to talk too much about Havana without mentioning the revolution which ended in 1959. There are reminders of it everywhere you turn. It is in all the literature, stickers on windows, walls, doors, banners on buildings and pictures of Fidel and Che on clothing, leather goods for tourists, paintings and of course their famous revolution square which still stands today as a proud reminder of their recent struggles.
can americans go to cuba
When I was a lad growing up in America we used to have regular duck and cover drills at school. The sirens would blast, teachers would close the floor to ceiling heavy dark curtains to protect us from broken window glass and we would hop under our little wooden desks curled up in a ball covering the back of our necks with our hands. We would stay in that position until the all clear siren would sound. This added to the fact that we were told that communism was bad and if left unchecked would take over our free world. Reds were under the beds and be on the look out for suspicious activity which was to be reported to the principal at once, gave us a rather bleed view of anything related to the hammer and sickle.
One of our guides on a walking tour gave us a brief history lesson concerning the US/Cuban relationship around the early 1900s. The Spanish started invading the island in 1511, the three main groups of natives were used as slaves in the gold mines but weren’t strong reliable workers so over the next 80 years were extinguished and replaced by African slaves. The Spanish ruled Cuba for almost 400 years until October 10th 1886 when the 10 war for independence started. When the Spanish were finally concurred Cuba Started  a strong relationship with the USA, at that time it was a haven for the rich and famous a place where alcohol, tobacco, gambling, prostitution and drugs were abundant.
The Cuban government and military had a relationship with the US government and mafia which was very profitable for all concerned. This relationship was strengthened during the days of depression and prohibition. Everyone was getting fat at the expense of the Cuban people, it was a real cash cow for all concerned but no milk flowed to the people who were struggling to exist. The national hotel which is still the flagship hotel in Havana was a huge casino and the rooms were reserved for the mafia bosses and their friends visiting from across the pond. This went on all through the 40s until the people started to organise in the early to mid 50s.
can americans go to cuba
In 1956 Fidel Castro came to Cuba from Mexico to help organise the people and was soon followed by Che. The cash cow was beginning to crumble for all concerned. The U.S. Backed the government the rebels were all branded as murderers and thieves. The up rising lasted until 1959 when Castro took over the government and gave Cuba back to the people. This pissed off the US so they slapped on Hefty  trade sanctions which were to a large part circumnavigated by Castro who opened trade routs with other nations. Today as we write Obama is opening up trade again with Cuba.
can americans go to cuba
When Castro took over he gave the outgoing government officials and military commanders the option to leave Cuba and give up all their possessions. With most going to the US. The mansions they lived in are all now under control of the state and being used as government offices, libraries, museums hospitals, medical offices, schools and other public uses. The revolution freaked   the people of Cuba and its leaders are national heroes.
Who knows what lifting the sanctions will do to Cuba as we know it, we are just happy we had the chance to see it as it is now.

Things to do in Reykjavik

Reykjavik, Iceland is hot on the radar of many travelers these days. It seems everyone is suddenly writing about how fantastic Iceland is. Why though? I asked my friend who recently visited (and took some great photos) and asked him about things to do in Reykjavic.

 

Your Humble Narrator: Why do you think Iceland is so popular at the moment? It seems like a few years ago the only thing people new about Iceland was Bjork and trolls.

Ben: Iceland is a place that people are flocking to now perhaps because Iceland is making a real effort to make itself a tourist destination that offers all the modern amenities. While also offering natural habitats that seem untouched, you can stay in comfort and you’re never too far away from the main city, Reykjavik. I also believe that with all the hyper surrounding global warming, people want to see natural beauties like glaciers and waterfalls in all their glory before it’s too late. Who knows what will happen in 50 years?

Things to do in ReykjavikYHN: Iceland air have some pretty good deals with free stopovers en-route from the US to Europe. Do you think Iceland is something you can do in less than a week?

Ben: Definitely. If you are planning on doing Iceland in less than a week, then I would suggest keeping your base in Raykjavik. It’s easily the most dense part of Iceland where i believe 80% of the population live. There is more to see but you’d probably need more than a week to see everything. All in all, you can take in most of the major attractions in a week.

 YHN: Apart from the trolls and Bjork what are some of the things to see.

 Ben: Glaciers, Northern Lights, The Golden Circle, The Blue Lagoon, Whale watching and some terrific museums.

YHN: What are those things?

Ben: Glaciers are large masses of snow, recrystallized ice and rock debris that accumulate in great quantities and then flow outwards and downwards under the pressure of their own weight. The main glaciers in Iceland are around Reykjavic, Solheimajokull and Skaftafell.

Folks offer very accessible tours for all fitness levels if you want to check these out. The Blue lagoon is a geothermal spa with warm waters that are rich in minerals, you can swim in them whilst being surrounded by ice. It’s really popular!

The golden circle is the main tourist route where yo ucan experience waterfalls, geysers and many other natural wonders.

things to do in reykjavik

YHN: What are northern lights? I’ve smoked some pretty good northern light but I didn’t know it was an actual thing.

 Ben: Northern Lights (aurora polaris) are a natural phenomenon that can be truly awe inspiring. They are changed particles that come from the sun and create an amazing show of light when they hit the earth’s atmosphere. The colors can be amazing depending on what time of year you visit but Iceland is famous for it’s Northern Lights.

things to do in reykjavik

YHN: You went alone, what are some of the good things about haulin’ ass by yourself. And of course, what are some of the bad things?

Ben: Iceland is considered one of the safest places on the planet, which in turn makes it an attractive place for solo travelers. You will not have a hard time meeting people, the locals are very friendly and most welcoming to people visiting their country. There are no bad things about traveling alone, you’ll be grateful for the experience.

 

things to do in reykjavic

YHN: What’s the best thing about going to Iceland? And why do people need to check it out?

Ben: The best thing about iceland is the stunning sites of nature It is truly a spiritual experience. The food is great aswell and the people are extremely friendly.

YHN: What’s the worst thing?

Ben: If I had to choose one negative about Iceland is that it’s expensive. Iceland was the first country to go under during the financial crisis which in turn has skyrocketed inflation lately.

things to do in reykjavic

Melbourne as a Tourist

The good thing about returning to your home town after years abroad is you start to appreciate things in different ways. Returning to Melbourne as a tourist, I was reminded of all the things I miss and some I didn’t.

Coffee, everywhere.

Australia and Melbourne in particular experienced a huge wave of European migrants post WWII. Along with their suitcases, people from Italy, Spain Greece etc. brought with them a strong coffee culture. Although initially , as with most things new, coffee was frowned upon by the traditional colonialist Twinings sipping set. Now it’s hard to walk a block without tripping over a cafe. With all this competition you’re sure to find some great coffee, one thing I have really missed.
melbourne as a tourist
They haven’t buffed the street art, in fact there’s more

Melbourne calls it self the ‘cultural capital’ of Australia. Fair enough too. Not just street art but performance art, theater and live music are the heartbeat or the city. Not only is it tolerated but it’s encouraged. Take a walk around the famous laneways of Melbourne to see droves of tourists taking photos of the art so generously displayed by local artists.

melbourne street art

Beaches beaches everywhere

Great beaches stretching from Geelong to Phillip Island. You’ll always find a nice spot to layout and soak up the rays.

Melbourne as a tourist

Great buildings from yesteryear

Way back in the 1850’s Melbourne experienced a gold rush that brought money pouring into the city. Take a wander down the ‘Paris End’ of Melbourne and you’ll see the spoils of an economy bolstered by gold fever. There’s alot of great stuff from the late 1800’s. The most famous probably being Flinder’s Street Staion, completed in 1909. Check out the worldwide competion that was launched for an adaptive reuse of the space. There’s a few really interesting ideas from some of the biggest names in the game.
Flinder’s Street Design Competiton

melbourne as a tourist

Alot of great ideas, good food and happy people

Melbourne has been dubbed, the most livable city in the world. Gertrude Street and Smith Street in Collingwood have spawned a thriving restaurant scene where some of the finest eateries in Melbourne are located.
Alain De Botton recently opened his ‘School of Life’ which aims to make learning practical. The Wheeler Centre regularly engages world class speakers. Coupled with some great museums and galleries, Melbourne as a tourist is a pretty happening spot no watter what tickles your fancy.
Not to mention the place is sports crazy, somethings never change..

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Gili Trawangan mushrooms, beaches and backpacks

Gili Trawangan a.k.a Mushroom Island is situated an hour and a half boat ride from Bali. If you can wade through the crowds of young men trying to sell you everything from accommodation to hash to bicycles to socks, you’ll enjoy the gorgeous island. With no cars on the island and if you’re coming from Bali you’ll enjoy the shift down in pace. Upon arriving and after being shown my modest accommodations and being offered “very good marijuana” 7 times.. from the same person I was informed there were no police on Gili Trawangan and I could feel free to do whatever I wanted.

gili trawangan mushrooms

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Instead of police, I was told the island’s laws were enforced by a group of elders and the young guys peddling there back alley bathtub amphetamines and hallucinogenic mushrooms were all ‘cool man’. If you’ve been to Vang Vieng in Laos picture that vibe but replace the tubing with scuba diving. From the onset it was clear this was the sole reason some of Gili T’s visitors had made the trip over to the island. Nightly parties on the beach and deadly cheap cocktail prices at various locations give the island just enough pulse to sustain the demand that keep the locals rubbing their hands together as daily boatloads of sunburnt tourists filter from the ferries.
gili trawangan alcohol
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Never one to be deturbed by such things I was able to see the island for what it was, a great alternative to Bali. There seemed to be alot more backpackers and a lot less vacationers here. Most people seem to come to do not only Gili Trawangan but also Gili Air, Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida. These are all island with less of a party reputation and even more of a laid back ‘island vibe.’ The beaches are fantastic, the accommodation is plentiful, the food is fantastic.
gili trawangan beach

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Between the two Islands there’s nearly 30 dive shops but even in low season the sites were crowded and although the viability was great and the staff lovely, you certainly wouldn’t class the area as a world class dive destination. Nusa Lembongan appears to be a better destination for a more tranquil dive setting and from all reports the party hasn’t made it down to the Nusa islands.
Nusa Lembongan Diving
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Gili Trawangan is a pretty cool place, it’s hard to believe it’s in such close proximity to Bali but with such a different crowd. Check it out if you’re stuck in Bali and get sick of all the jiggy jig, transport, massaje, marijuana, transport, rent surf board, monkey forrst, jiggy jig, transport. The Gili Islands can be a great jump off for exploring Lombok too, a whole different kind of trip. Go check it out, even if it is just to eat mushrooms and stare at firetwirlers all nightbut keep in mind, The Gili Trawangan mushrooms are far from the best thing about this island.

Understanding international dialing

Having trouble understanding international dialing? It doesn’t have to be difficult, follow these steps to ensure you get through to whoever you want-

Each country has their unique dialing code, you’ll need to enter this code first to dial out of the country. For example, if you were in the United States your dialing code would be 011; this would be the first numbers that you entered when you make your call.  After entering this number you then move to the next step

  1. The next numbers that you will enter after this will be the country code for the place you are calling. This number can be up to three digits but is usually only two. One example would be France; this country’s dialing code is 33. To make a call from the United States to France, you would enter 011, and then the country dialing code for where you are calling, which in this case would be 33. 011+33+ the number you wish to reach.
  2. Next you will have to enter the city code of the number you wish to reach, this narrows your destination call down to a specific city or region; again this could be a number up to three digits. If you are dialing Paris France that number would be a 1. 013+33+Area Code + Local number you wish to reach.

Now that seems complicated doesn’t it? Hopefully this helps you in understanding international dialing. Luckily there’s this great website that automatically does it for you. It’s always nice to know how to do it in case you really, really need to work it out without the helps of the interwebs.

Head over to www.countrycallingcodes.com/index.php. This site makes it all as easy at entering where you are and where you want to call. Simple.

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