Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Tips for Travel to Cuba

Since travel to Cuba is still semi-new for most Americans I thought it would be helpful to leave a few tips from my recent experience traveling from SFO-MIAMI-HAVANA and back. In the old days Americans had to travel from Mexico or Panama to Cuba or from Canada to Cuba. There was the risk of being fined by the US upon return even though it was never really enforced, at least not for quite a few years. But now with the eased restrictions for US citizens, as long as they are going for educational purposes or any of the 12 categories provided by the US law its ok to travel to Cuba.

The first thing needed is a flight. I booked through a company in Miami who's primary customers are Cubans, called CubaMax Travel. They provided me with a roundtrip charter flight from Miami to Havana for $339 and they charged me $75 for a Visa for Cuba. I also then booked a separate roundtrip flight from San Francisco to Miami which was about $400.  If I had booked through Mexico from SFO to CANCUN to CUBA, the flight to Cancun would have been about $325, Cancun to Havana about $325. Also to buy a visa for Cuba in Mexico is only $25 there. So I would have saved about $150 total but we also killed two birds with one stone visiting family in Miami. Soon commercial flights will be going to Cuba so all the advice I give may all change after the airlines start daily flights to Cuba.

SUNSCREEN is important because unlike the Cubans who have skin that doesn't need protection, my wife and I did need it. And finding sunscreen there is extremely difficult if not impossible. TOLIET PAPER may sound like a funny item to bring but it's good as gold in Havana. Unfortunately many of the restrooms don't have it, and plumbing isn't quite up to code in this Third World Country so take my advice and bring some TP. CASH, and lots of it. Food is cheap, hotels are a little pricey, but American's still can't use the ATMs or credit cards for the most part. That hopefully will change soon but until then bring all the money you plan on spending in Cuba, and put it in your wallet. A CAMERA, the Spanish colonial architecture, the people, the old 50's cars, and the scenic ocean views are like no other place in the world. Take pics and save the memories.

I'm so against tour groups. I think its as bad as cruises. But Havana is one place where speaking Spanish is good to know. My wife understands well and I took it back in 10th grade even though I don't remember much, but we had a Cuban born cousin take us around which was a huge help.  For many years English was the language of the enemy for Cuba so it wasn't taught in schools. But now many Cubans are learning English so at some restaurants and hotels a person can definitely get by. So even if I didn't have my Cuban cousin I would rather travel alone than with a tour group. On top of that they are a total rip off with their prices.

Getting around town is really easy. There's a Hop on Hop off Red Bus that goes around to many key hotels and sites in Havana for 10 CUC. There's also a nice bus called Transtur (I believe it's called) that goes to the beach around 40 minutes away for 5 CUC. Taxis, the bike taxis, etc will be around 3 CUC, more if going further of course. But transportation is easy.

We stayed in a Casa Particular, which is just a rented apartment which is the economical way to go. It ranges from 20 CUC TO 50 CUC. But to me they are not as comfortable as a hotel of course. Air BNB also can be booked from the United States for a stay in Havana. Cuban officials when arriving may ask for the address of where a person plans to stay so that info is vital to have on arrival, at least even if it's for one night only.

So those are just some tips for those interested in going. Havana should be on everyone's bucket list and sooner rather than later with all the changes that will happen in the coming years.


Thursday, April 7, 2016

Japan - Land of the Rising Sun, the Land of the Most Respectful People

I'll start off with our first experience as we arrived back in San Francisco after two weeks in Japan. We get off the airplane and head over to the Bart trains to catch a ride home. When we get to the platform we find out there is a 30 minute delay until the next train arrives. When the train does finally arrive we find empty bottles on the seats, a guy laying across two seats, and a girl blasting her radio for everyone in the train to "enjoy".  I said to my wife "I wish we were still in Japan, this would never happen there."

I've been all over the world and have interacted with many cultures. Each culture has wonderful qualities worth imitating. What Japan excels in more than any place I've been is, they are the most polite, honest, and thoughtful people. Not to say the Japanese do not possess many other good qualities like generosity and cleanliness, but the first qualities I mention are above and beyond.

Just to give examples, when taking the subways since I mentioned Bart at the start of my blog. The punctuality of the trains is ridiculous. I never waited for a train more than a couple minutes and the time that is listed on the schedule is the time the train arrives. No litter is left in the trains, no music playing or loud talking. In fact when we got on the train, if my wife sat down next to someone that notices I'm with her, they automatically slide over or move so that I can sit next to my wife! Where else are people so polite and thoughtful?!

Being the coffee-addicted wifi-dependent American that I am, my wife and I headed to one of the many Starbucks in Japan. I noticed all around me that the Japanese would leave their iPads or laptop computers and go to the restroom or grab a drink.  They never thought twice about their property being stolen. Just for the sake of comparison, leave an iPad laying around at the Starbucks near my condo in Oakland, if a person were to do that they would walk out of Starbucks iPad-less. When we got up to leave Starbucks I was so pre-occupied searching the maps on my iPhone for the next place we were going to visit I left my wallet at the table I was sitting at. When we were about a block away I realized I left my wallet so I rushed back to find that it was sitting exactly were I left it. Along with that we never felt unsafe or worried about crime which is testament to the people of Japan's integrity and honor.

Also during our trip there was a holiday which was called "Respect for the Aged Day" which is a national holiday to honor elderly citizens. Respect not only for the elderly is stressed in the Japanese culture but respect and honor are taught and emphasized from infancy on in Japan.  When I talk to my Japanese friend who lives in the Tokyo area how impressed I was by the conduct of the people, he said "all these millions of people on this little island have to learn this because there's so many in such a small area". But it's more than that, it's truly remarkable to me that everybody in the country is on the "same page", they understand, they "get it". The whole "do unto others as you would have them do to you", they actually follow that!  It works!

There's of course many superficial things that I enjoyed as well in Japan like the food. The food is the best in the world and the Japanese definitely take pride in their cuisine. How modern everything is in Tokyo, yet they keep the traditions of their culture alive despite that. Everyone I met was so friendly, I received so many gifts, my wife and I were overwhelmed by the generosity shown to us.

Japan was a special experience, I was touched by the new friends we made, the friends I was able to reconnect with after so many years, and being in a culture that does so many things "right". I look forward to the opportunity to visit again, to visit the Land of the Rising Sun, the Land of the most respectful people.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The difference between traveling and vacationing.

What is the difference between traveling and vacationing? A lot of people confuse the two being that both are time away from our secular jobs. Both require leaving home for a certain about of time. But the differences are substantial, and understanding the difference and really what your goal is when a person is off work will determine which they prefer. Is your time off to relax and do nothing, being care free? Or is your time off for seeing or doing something new that you can't do while being stuck at work.

I really enjoy traveling. Being able to see and experience a new culture and a people totally different from mine. Making new friends and staying in contact with them even when I return home through email and social media.  Observing God's creation whether it be interacting with a cheetah or koala bear, or as I marvel at the beautiful reefs or views on top of a mountain. Even the ability that people have to make amazing architecture and cook delicious local cuisine. When I leave from traveling I feel like my life has been enriched. I understand a little more the relationship between people and the surrounding world.

That ability or desire to understand and see the world is what separates humans from animals. A dog doesn't care about what dogs in India do or eat. There are no museums for cows to look at the history of cows. This is a unique gift we have that I think very few take advantage of.

So the other day a person asked me why I don't just go on a cruise. Which is a good question being that thousands and thousands of people go on cruises every year. People like the convenience of it all. The entertainment, food, rooms, and ports of call are all included in one economic price. From my own experience I went on a cruise that started off in Tampa that went to Cozumel, Belize, and Grand Cayman. I'll be honest, I felt like a prisoner or cattle on the ship. I was allowed to eat and go out to the yard for a few hours a day until they told me to get back on the ship, "prison/barn." The people on the boat were older and "less adventurous types." It was like hanging out with "Joe from Chicago" who just retired or "Bob from Florida" who decided to go because it was a good deal. I left feeling empty like I got nothing from it but a slightly bigger stomach and maybe a little extra sleep. But I could've done all that at home! I could have laid around and stuffed my face with food and never left the house. The stops at the ports of call leave barely anytime to do anything let alone understand something about the place I visited. I've had layovers to my next flight longer than the time spent at the ports of call.

That's the difference between travel and vacation. Going to Hawaii every year or to a resort in Cancun or Jamaica is not traveling. That is under the vacation category. There's absolutely nothing wrong choosing to relax in a comfortable environment and spending time to re-energize and rejuvenate one's self before the grind of everyday life comes again. I forgot the percentage but I believe 85% of people go to places they have already been to. So I would say most people, and when I say people I mean Americans like to vacation. 

So most will probably guess I prefer travel. What do you prefer?