Thursday, May 4, 2017

All of the contents of my pack at the beginning

This is what I am taking to England with me for the Pennine Way and the Coast to Coast, subject to change in the next two weeks before I leave. I will be wearing some of it, obviously, at all times so the pack will only ever carry one pair of shoes, one T-shirt and so on. I am also going to find two disposable plastic bottles once I get there. 

I also have a smart phone that I will be bringing, but it is taking these pictures, and I have not taught it to take a selfie yet. 

Light weight carbon hiking poles in their bag, an old Golite umbrella, light running shoes on the left and my Altra 3.0 Gore-Tex  on the right. 

Kindle, iPod, 2-port USB charger with UK plugs, earbuds, charging cables for phone, kindle and iPod, notebook. pen, a small compass for the waist belt, a real compass for the pack, whistle, and a bag of strung, rubber bands and the laundry line. 

Rain gear, including a black rain hat, blue Sierra Designs "elite cagoule" rain jacket, yellowish rain chaps and a green pack cover. 
26-liter Osprey pack. It may be swapped out for a 33 liter Osprey "Talon" depending on how each one feels when loaded

Hiking hat, light gloves, a Patagonia "Houdini" jacket all packed up in its own pocket, reading glasses, sunglasses, and a thin wool cap.

Foot kit and repair kit. with carrying case

Toiletry kit and sunscreen

Sleep kit, with inflatable pillow, neck warmer that acts as a blindfold, earplugs, Ambien, a small LED flashlight with extra batteries, and a bag for it all. 

A lightweight SilNylon backpack that doubles as the stuff sack for my clothes, a water purifier, two yellow mini gaiters, a handkerchief and a money purse. 

Patagonia R1 pullover, two tech t-shirst, and a "nice" shirt to wear around town. 

Socks and undkes

Hiking shorts (left) and hiking pants. Both are Stretch Zion pants by Prana.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Next Stop - The UK for a lot of hiking

We are going hiking in the UK starting in late May. The map below shows all of the UK, and in the northern part, there are two trails that make a big red cross. The trail that runs north-south is the Pennine Way, and the trail that runs east-west is the Coast-to-Coast trail.  Mike is going first, hiking the Pennine way (250 miles or so) with members of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. After the Penning Way, We will both meet up on the west coast in St. Bees for a west-to-east hike of the Coast-to-Coast trail (about 200 miles). 

Here is a close-up of the two trails showing a little more detail. Each trail goes through several national parks, and the Coast-to-Coast goes through the "Lake District" which is supposed to be beautiful. We are going to be staying in local inns and B&B style accommodations for the entire trip, so we will not be bringing tents or sleeping bags or cooking gear. It will be a lot like the Camino de Santiago in regards to the equipment that we need to carry. 

I think that we are both looking forward to a trip in a country where we speak the language, or at least one dialect of the language. 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Our published article on the Cuba experience

We have a local printed quarterly news publication in our community, and here is the article that I wrote about our trip. Some of this is taken from previous posts to Facebook and to this blog, but a lot of it is new.

Three Weeks in Cuba

By Mike Evanoff

Sherry and I went to Cuba for three weeks over Christmas this year. Our basic plan was to spend two weeks in Spanish language schools – five days in Havana and five days in Trinidad. We flew into Havana on the Thursday before our Monday classes started, and then spent five days touring around after our classes ended in Trinidad. For this article, I’ll write a little about the nuts and bolts of travel to Cuba and some of the more unusual experiences that we had. If you want more of our insights, descriptions, and rants, you can take a look at our blog:
I would like to emphasize up front that independent travel in Cuba is not easy. If you read the Runner regularly, you will know that we travel a lot and, for us, Cuba was a challenge. I am a Spanish major at GMU, so I can generally understand people when they are talking to me directly, slowly, and not using slang. I can’t really imagine how our experience would have been with little or no Spanish. These words taste bitter coming out of my mouth because we are not fans of group tours, but if you are not an experienced international traveler, or if you have no Spanish skills, I would highly recommend an organized trip of some kind. Okay, I got that off of my chest.

Getting to Cuba is easy. Flights cost about $300 round trip right now, so it is a relatively inexpensive getaway. You can just book flights online, the same way that you would book a flight to Miami. There are, however, rules about going to Cuba. According to the State Department:

Travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited by statute. However, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has issued general licenses for 12 categories of travel.  

The reality is that nobody really checks. Our most rigorous interrogation came from the confused United Airlines check-in clerks at Dulles who had clearly never processed anyone going to Cuba before. They were looking up the rules and asking us questions until one of the supervisors came over and told them to just let us check in. We flew from Dulles to Newark to Havana. At the United gate in Newark, they knew what they were doing. At the gate, we had to pay $75 each for our tourist visas, and then check one of the 12 boxes indicating our reason for traveling. End of questioning. Upon returning home, there was no questioning of any kind regarding the purpose of our visit. The take-away is that, at least for now, you can just go. Check the “people to people” box for your reason and get on the plane. We flew into Havana, but there are several airports that you can fly to. Most Canadians fly into Varadero, because that is where the beach resorts are. We flew into Havana because that is where our classes were.

If you have ever been to a Caribbean island, you will feel a certain familiarity when landing in Cuba. The heat and humidity, the chaotic airport scene, 100 taxi drivers trying to take you to your location. It took a really long time to get through immigration because they have to take your picture and check your visa and stamp the passport. If you have booked a package tour, this is where you will just meet with your tour coordinator and get on the modern air-conditioned bus that will whisk you to your hotel. If not, get ready to stand in line at the one and only money exchange window at the airport to get some local currency and then haggle for a taxi. Actually, not much haggling at the Havana airport. It is a flat standard fee of 30 CUC ($30) to get to anywhere in Havana. Now, sit back and relax and watch the next half hour slip by looking at the old cars, the concrete architecture, and the oddly abundant motorcycles with sidecars. The plants and geography are  the same as you will find in nearby Puerto Rico, Jamaica, the Yucatan Peninsula, or the Bahamas: limestone base covered in a low scrubby jungle.
Speaking of money, you need to bring cash. If your cash runs out, you’d better have someone back in the USA who will send you more via Western Union. Your ATM card will not work, and neither will your credit card. You can change your dollars for the Cuban currency in most towns at the “Cadeca,” but they charge a 10% tax up front on dollars and then apply the normal currency exchange fee. You will get 87 CUC for every $100. I had forgotten how anxiety provoking it is to travel on cash. Normally, we just pull out more at an ATM machine or charge meals and accommodations on a credit card. Not in Cuba. Be prepared to look at your dwindling supply of cash every so often and fret. Three weeks is a long time to travel on cash alone. Remember that advice about taking an organized tour? The tours are paid in advance using dollars, so you don’t have to worry about any of this.
Is there Internet? Yes. And no. If you want to pay $5-10 per hour at a tourist hotel, you can. They have functional, if slow, Internet. You can definitely check your emails periodically. Otherwise, you need a scratch-off card from the Cuban telecom company “ETESCA,” which costs $2 per hour, and then you find a wireless hotspot and use the card. However, once you have waited in line at ETESCA to buy a card, you will be told that they are sold out. Like so many other products in Cuba, someone has already waited in line and bought 1,000 of them and now there are none left. So, once you have found a hotspot (just look for a bunch of people on their phones), just lurk around a bit and someone will offer to sell you a card for $3 (a 50% markup). Congratulations, you have just participated in the black market. Get over it, because it will happen over and over again. By some unexpected miracle, my Google “Project Fi” phone got 3G in Havana and slower connectivity in the rest of the island, despite their web page stating that nothing would work in Cuba. We paid $10 per gig for data, and it appeared to be uncensored. If we had used Sherry’s Verizon phone, the same data would have cost $2,000 per gig. If not for Project Fi, we would have used the black market scratch-off cards every so often.

We found Cuba to be a land of stark contrast and confounding to a western capitalist. The people seem to be surprisingly equal in their living situations. We saw no desperate Haitian-style poverty and no Houses of the Rich and Famous. Most people have a little land, a one-story concrete house with a rooftop terrace, and a horse or a bicycle or a car. Havana has a lot of huge, beautiful buildings but these have been co-opted by the government or have been split up into several residences. We always hear of the poverty in Cuba, but they don’t seem much poorer than the rural people we have seen in Mexico, Grand Turk, Bonaire, or any other Caribbean island that we have been to. Cuba is very proud of its high literacy rate, but there is nothing to read in Cuba. Seems a waste to invest in literacy and then provide nothing but a few books on The Revolution, Che, and Fidel. There are two thin government-run newspapers that just write about The Revolution, Che, and Fidel. They seem to double as toilet paper in many locations. If you want to buy the newspaper, it is not sold in any store. You need to find the old guy on the corner who went somewhere to buy a stack of them, and then supplements his retirement by selling them.

Another contrast is that money is coming into the country but there is nowhere to buy anything. We normally think that we can buy things as we need them while traveling, but that simply isn’t possible in Cuba. Need Tylenol, decongestant, or bandages? Forget it. Bring everything that you need for your stay. You may have some luck in the big tourist hotels, but it will be hit or miss. Also, everything is completely thrashed. The cars spew smoke and have no suspension. We went scuba diving once, and the gear was leaky, torn, and barely functioning. The scuba shop was clearly pulling in a good amount of money because the dive bus was full. Cuban tourism industries seem to be in a position where they have money to invest but can't spend it to improve the experience because there is simply no place or process for buying scuba gear. They can’t just order spare parts off of the Internet or from another country because import and export is not allowed. All purchases go through the government. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that things work very differently in Cuba than in any other country that we have been to.

Our Spanish classes were a highlight of the trip. There are no classrooms, so the classes would be held in someone’s living room or in the patio of a family compound. The teachers were patient and willing to talk a little bit about their experiences living in Cuba. We got to know them as people and were able to understand a little better how their lives worked. The three hours of classes every day passed very quickly. Our lodging hosts were uniformly friendly and helpful and seemed happy to have us. One spoke excellent English, one spoke a little bit, and one spoke none at all, but everyone took very good care of us. We were invited to eat with one family for Christmas Eve and another family for New Years. I babbled away in my excitable Spanglish, and they smiled and offered me more beer. I found it to be an agreeable arrangement. Despite these really positive experiences, for us three weeks was too long to stay in Cuba. The museums are uniformly disappointing, the food all has a certain sameness to it, and the old cars are cool for about an hour or two. Next time, we will stay for a week, do day trips to different places, and pay ahead of time in dollars.

All of our Cuba photos in one album

Here is a link to all of the photos that we took in Cuba, minus the ones that were on Sherry's phone when she lost it in Havana. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Black Market, Subsidies and the Strange Economics of Cuba

For a couple of capitalists, traveling in Cuba was strange and mystifying. There is a Cuban urban myth about the poor retirees living on $20 a month and state employees earning not much more than that in their jobs. While we heard of these people over and over, we really did not see any of them. It is estimated that 95% of Cubans participate in some way in illegal activities in order to make ends meet. We regularly paid $5 to $50 for short and long taxi rides. One night in a "Casa Particular" with breakfast and dinner for two costs about $60, or twice the official monthly wage of Cubans. One family did not even blink an eye as they exchanged $200 in currency with us. They are not as poor as they would lead you to believe. Cuba has definitely gone through huge changes and has suffered large economic shocks. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba lost its primary benefactor and trading partner. Now, Venezuela is collapsing and the steady stream of free oil from Venezuela is about to dry up. Still, despite all of the hype about Cuba being so poor and how life is so hard, it did not look much different from other Caribbean countries we have been to. Take away the old cars and the socialist propaganda, and you could be in Puerto Rico, Trinidad, Bonaire, Grand Turk, or some of the more remote parts of the Yucatan. Many Caribbean islands had their heyday in the sugar and banana industries but those industries are now globalized and what you have left are a bunch of relatively arid limestone islands with limited economies mostly relying on tourism. Cuba is just the biggest one of these islands. The big difference is the way the economy works and, as a tourist, it is hard to figure out. 

First, imagine a country with no drugstores, no bike shops, very limited clothing shops, and definitely no department stores. All shops are tiny, poorly stocked, and generally sold out of a number of items. We normally think that we can buy things as we need them while traveling but that simply isn't possible in Cuba. Need Tylenol, decongestant or bandages? Forget it. Bring everything that you need for your stay. You may have some luck in the big tourist hotels, but it will be hit or miss. Also, everything is completely thrashed. We went scuba diving once, and the gear was leaky, torn, and barely functioning. The scuba shop was clearly pulling in a good amount of money because the dive bus was full. Cuban tourism industries seem to be in a position where they have money to invest but can't spend it to improve the experience because there is simply no place or process for buying scuba gear. They can't just order spare parts off of the Internet or from another country because import and export is not allowed. 

Apparently, in 2010, Cuba came to terms with its bloated payrolls in the state enterprises and fired about 500,000 state employees. To compensate, they started to allow limited private industry in the form of taxi drivers, shop owners, room rentals and restaurants. All stores must buy their goods from the Government, because nobody is allowed to import or export. So, how do you make money if you are buying from the Government and then reselling the same goods that the Government also sells? A lot of Cubans make a living by getting to the store and buying out large quantities of government goods, and then reselling them at a profit. This leads to shortages for the average working Joe, as one of my teachers bitterly pointed out. If you have a day job, you can't go to the store and wait in line to get what you need. The unemployed wait in line, buy it all, and then resell it in their shops at a markup. As a tourist, it seems that none of the stores have anything worth buying anyway, but the average Cuban relies on this meager stream of goods to survive. 

In 2015, many of the restrictions on money transfers (remittances) from Cubans living in the USA were lifted, and now a steady stream of money is heading into Cuba from Cuban Americans. We could usually tell the households with foreign money coming in because they are rebuilding or expanding their homes and running Airbnb businesses. Speaking of Airbnb, we found our hosts to be very helpful because, in order to get a taxi, you have to know somebody who knows somebody. We would tell the host where we wanted to go and when we wanted to leave and, in a day, they would let us know that they had located a taxi and they gave us the price. Clearly, if we were just going cross town, we could get a taxi on the street, but to go from one town to the next, you need to use the social network. Everybody gets a little cut. 

We went to the cigar "factory" in Trinidad. About 40 people in a room full of old small desks. They made pretty crappy cigars at that place but, as we walked by, the workers would open up hidden drawers and try to sell us the good stuff from other factories. A lot of workers in state enterprises pocket things to sell on the black market. Everyone from hospital employees to cigar factory workers. I got two of these (surely fake) Cohiba cigars from the boss lady's secret stash and smoked one. It was the best smoke I have had in a while. It is probably a factory second from the main production plant. Nicely rolled, excellent flavor, aesthetically pleasing. Best fake cigars on the planet.

The economics of condoms in Cuba

We had two odd condom experiences in Cuba, both of which are a commentary on the state of the economy and the politics. While in Havana, we were sitting on the sea wall one night and we saw a fisherman using what looked like three big balloons to help float his bait out into the water and to also keep "sailing" the hook out into deeper water. Since ordinary Cubans can't own boats for fear that they will sail north, they have to find other ways to deep sea fish. As he was floating/casting the line, I said to Sherry that those looked like condoms, not balloons. Apparently, condom fishing is actually a thing in Cuba:

Our other experience was in one of our Airbnb houses. I walked into the dining room and saw a few hundred boxes of 3-packs (like the one pictured). I asked him what he was doing, and he said that the condoms in Cuba are heavily subsidized, so he gets a bunch of them, and then sells them in Europe somehow. I didn't get details on the whole process, but this is probably a familiar story anywhere that portable goods are heavily subsidized by the government. He also said that they make good temporary plugs for flat tires. 

Cuba is a challenging place to travel and, even after 3 weeks there, we were still not entirely sure how many mechanisms work or how to make simple things happen. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Cult of Personality

In Cuba, even though he is dead, the national dialog is all Fidel, all the time. Fidel and Che are everywhere. I found it ironic that Cuba is proud of its high rate of literacy, but there is nothing to read. The only reading material is about The Revolution, Che and Fidel. There are two newspapers in the country - Granma and Juventud Rebelde, both of which are thin, published by the government, and cover the same stories. The stories are, you guessed it, about Fidel and The Revolution. Other popular topics are the continuing struggle for the victory of the revolution, increased agricultural output for some crop or another, and the latest successes of the Cuban chess, boxing or baseball teams. We are accustomed to a society with debate and different views from the press and access to the foreign press. Cuba has been subject to this unending propaganda for 59 years. It was really hard for us to tell if the people believed in the propaganda. When we would ask, the answer was never direct or particularly enlightening. Certainly, nobody said "Yeah, Fidel was an asshole", so the opposition is clearly suppressed. There is one political party, and the candidate always wins with 100% of the vote.

This abundance of propaganda was particularly strong around Bay of Pigs. Dozens of anti-American billboards, old tanks and airplanes in the roundabouts,  and "defend the revolution" signs everywhere. The invasion happened before I was born. I am trying to imagine an America that is stuck in 1960 and has not moved on. Sherry and I went scuba diving in the Bay of Pigs and we actually swam around one of the American landing craft sitting in about 40 feet of water.  There was a big fat juicy Lionfish swimming around in it, but they don't seem to have an eradication program on that reef. Too bad, those things are tasty. We saw 6 or 7 during the dive. 

We did come to realize, however, that the vast majority of Cubans feel that the revolution was beneficial to the country and everyone had some measure of support for it. Despite the clear problems that developed after the first years, many of the citizens here would have been in slavery or close to it if it weren't for the revolution. Today, everyone in the countryside has a little bit of land and a concrete box to live in. Nobody is forced to work, there are no flagrantly rich people, and the communities seem to pull for one another in a way that we have not seen before. The beaches are all open to all citizens, and there are no big villas or gated communities (that we saw). I think that we are both still trying to come to terms with what we saw and reconcile it with our western way of looking at things. 

We saw Cuban flags on the official buildings everywhere - here is a particularly large one 

This is the corner bookstore. We saw one or two "brick and mortar" book stores (just a room about the size of an American living room) which had an equally narrow selection of books. Che, Fidel and the Revolution. Oh, and Hemingway. His "Old Man and the Sea" is big here in Cuba - all of our teachers had read it. They do seem to have a good selection of Cuban poetry books, but I never read any of them. I suspect that the poems do not cross into politics.

Here is a huge mural of Fidel on the side of a building. He had just died about three weeks before we arrived, so his picture was more prominent than usual.

Every little town had dozens of these murals painted on the walls. This one says: "Our obligation: Produce for the people!" "ANAP" is the organization for small farmers.

Another big flag commemorating Fidel's "26 July" movement AKA The Revolution.

I think that 5 September is when the city of Cienfuegos fell to the revolution. Makes sense, because this sign was painted in Cienfuegos.

The people make the revolutions. The citizens of Cienfuegos are solid/unwavering, I have no doubts. Fidel.

Getting Fed in Cuba

Normally, when we travel, we try to do quite a bit of the cooking in our rented apartment. It may sound odd, but eating out 3 meals a day gets old in a hurry. A simple breakfast with coffee, toast and yogurt and some sandwiches for lunch gets us through the day and then we are ready to go out for a nice dinner. I think that this is what we had imagined when we left for Cuba. As you have probably figured out already, this is not how it played out. Here are the barriers:

1) Your apartment may not have any cooking equipment at all. One of them had a nice private kitchen but no stove and no cooking equipment or plates or silverware, one had only a shared dining room with a sink and a refrigerator. One had a kitchen with a few pots and pans and a little electric hot plate. We could at least make our own coffee in the morning. Cubans simply don't have that many things and to put pots and pans in the rental part of the house means that they are not available in the main kitchen of the house. Thankfully, they all have refrigerators or access to one, so no worries with cold beer.

2) Good luck buying food. If you find something that looks like a grocery store, it will have liquor in the front half, and a random assortment of frozen mystery meat, oddly matched canned goods and overly large containers of condiments. Remember those pictures of Soviet grocery stores? It is like that. 

If you want fresh produce, you buy that on the streets from small vendors with horse carts, or little corner stalls. Above is a picture of one of the larger corner vegetable stalls in Havana. Eggs seem to mysteriously appear - just look for the doorway with a line coming out of it. Milk? Forget it. We didn't see it the whole time. You can get a big bag of powdered milk, or 1-liter boxes of condensed milk.  Fresh meat is also sold from small stalls or from doorways. Look for the pig parts dangling from the doorway. I think that it takes most people a few hours per day to do their grocery shopping, and only because they have a strong knowledge of the local community. 

3) Your apartment will have no food in it when you arrive. I mean, no salt, no pepper, no cooking oil, no rice, nothing. Most Airbnb places will have some of the basics left over from other tenants. Not here. You would have to buy every little thing.

OK, so no cooking. We paid for our hosts to make us breakfast and then ate at restaurants for lunch and dinner. With few exceptions, the meals had a certain sameness. The only type of rice is white, the only bread is white. Almost every meal comes with black beans and rice, fried plantains or banana chips. a salad with tomatoes, cucumber and cabbage, and your choice of chicken, pork, shrimp or beef. You may get lucky and find lobster or fish. You can choose from three different types of generic beer (Presidente, Buccanero, or Crystal) and any of the standard rum drinks. Rum is dirt cheap here.  We actually found one "hip" bar that went out of its way to make good cocktails, but that was an exception. Mostly, it is Mojitos, Cuba Libres, Daiquiris and PiƱa Coladas.

We did find some really nice ceviche, more than one good ropa vieja, and Sherry got lobster whenever the occasion presented itself. One of our hosts, Luis, did amazing things with the limited basic ingredients available to him and he also is a beekeeper so we had his honey every morning. Another one of our hosts made us breakfasts and pretty good dinners because the town was so small that the restaurants didn't look too appealing. But, after three weeks, it became harder and harder to get excited about going out to dinner, knowing that the menu would be essentially the same no matter where we went.

The big upside is that there really isn't much junk food in Cuba. There is soda, but we don't drink that stuff anymore. We rarely ordered dessert because, after eating a big breakfast and a restaurant lunch and dinner, we really weren't hungry anymore. I'm not sure if we lost weight, but I don't think we gained any either. Midnight snacks? Sorry - nowhere to buy anything that you would want to eat.

We didn't ask any of the all-inclusive hotel people that we met what their experience with food was. Maybe they serve something entirely different in the big tourist hotels. Lots of Canadians down here - maybe they have a Cuban spin on Poutine.