Sometimes a photo just isn't complete without the backstory, so here's the backstory for this photo ... One of my favorite things to do in Cuba is to walk the streets of Centro Habana talking with anyone patient/kind/foolish enough to suffer through my weak and often offensive attempts at Cuban Spanish. I also always listen to music when I'm not embarrassing myself with my Spanglish. At the time of this photo, it just so happens I'd recently bought a pair of Beats Studio Wireless headphones. So, I'm walking the streets of Centro Habana with my new headphones on when I come across a group of kids. They quickly look at me like I'm a complete idiot (fair enough), and not the normal idiot look I get down there (which I know well) ... this was more of a "WTF is that gringo doing wearing unplugged headphones" look. While these Cuban kids clearly knew what headphones were, they had no concept/grasp of Bluetooth technology. Because of that, they quickly concluded I was another idiot gringo tourist, and one who apparently liked to walk around wearing unplugged headphones. I could tell they were giving me the "WTF look," so I called this kid over and put my headphones over his ears. I let him stand there in silence for a minute, and it was clear he was thinking "Yep, just what I thought, this guy's an idiot" ... It was at that very moment that I hit play on my iPhone and dropped the beat on the kid ... He had no idea what had just happened, but he absolutely loved it ... So, in case anyone was ever wondering, this is the look you get when you introduce a young Cuban kid to the wonders of Bluetooth technology for the very first time. I will never forget the look on his face because it puts a smile on my face every. single. time.

that look

that look

be careful what you wish for ...

First, let me apologize for going so long between posts. I hate to sound like a whiny eight year old, but I got hit by the perfect storm of sickness last month, and it totally screwed my end-of-December (as well as the start of my New Year). In the future, I don't plan on going that long in-between posts, although I'm quite certain people weren't exactly sitting by their computers hitting 'refresh' in anticipation of my next blog post. If you were, well, then .... Anyway, my apologies again to all for the lengthy delay between posts. 

Next, let me preface this new post by restating how absolutely thrilled I am that both the US & Cuba have taken steps towards normalizing diplomatic relations. I made that crystal clear in my last post, and, all BS aside, my feelings haven't changed one bit. I'm 100% certain restoring full diplomatic relations between the US & Cuba will ultimately benefit the Cuban people, and that's what matters to me the most at the end of the day.

So, having said the above, here's my free advice for the day ... If you're interested in visiting Cuba, do so now, and I mean NOW. Go via Mexico, go via Canada, go via the Bahamas, just GO, and GO NOW. It's not difficult to travel from the US to Cuba via a third country, it's really not ... not that I would know anything about that. *cough cough*

Here's why you need to visit Cuba now ... After the news sunk in last month, and after I had a moment to really process the historical developments between the US & Cuba, I was suddenly struck by one overwhelming thought ... "Ohhh SH*T." Before I explain that thought, let me clarify that (1) I love the US, and (2) I'm VERY proud to be American. Ok, with that said, I can be totally honest now and say I was absolutely haunted by the mental picture of my beautiful Cuba suddenly being overrun by millions of fanny pack wearing Americans ... wool socks + sandals and all ... and that thought scared the ever-living sh*t out of me. Truthfully, it still does. 

I realize the following might sound both hypocritical & somewhat arrogant, but, in my opinion, one of the things that makes Cuba so incredibly special & unique is that there aren't millions of Americans running amuck all over the island. Before my fellow gringos call me an a**hole and decide to never read my blog posts again, please allow me to elaborate ... Anyone who truly knows me knows that I don't hold a particularly high opinion of myself. They also know I rarely take myself seriously. I'm far from perfect, and no one knows this more than me (and everyone around me, lol). Each day I try to be a better person, because that's all I can do. Some days I succeed, and some days, not so much. So, I would NEVER imply that I'm a "better American" than the next American tourist. What I will say though, is that I'm a very respectful traveler/tourist. I will also add that I always try to represent the US in a very respectful manner. Unfortunately, my personal travel experiences have shown me that many Americans take a different & less respectful approach when traveling outside the US.

For example, on my second trip to Cuba, I was traveling in a group of around twenty or so Americans via a people-to-people tour. As part of this tour, we were all being driven around on a coach/bus by a very nice Cuban gentleman. Although the Cuban gentleman didn't own the bus, he drove it home each night, and it was clear he took a lot of pride in maintaining "his" bus. Well, one of my fellow Americans (the loud type who always seem to brag about how much money they have) decided to enjoy a snack on the bus (various crackers) while we were in-between stops. After he was done eating, his seat and the entire surrounding area looked like two raccoons had fought and knocked over a trash can. There were huge crumbs and discarded cracker packages everywhere. Any respectful person would have cleaned up their mess, or at least made an effort to do so. Not this guy, nope. Knowing full well the Cuban gentleman was responsible for the cleanliness of the bus, my fellow American decided to literally dump everything on the floor, crackers, wrappers, and all. To top it off, he finished up by boasting loudly "screw it, he'll clean it up, it's his job." I'd love to say I was speechless, but I actually told him how disrespectful I thought he was. He just looked at me, paused, and laughed. He could have cared less. Not surprisingly, he followed this incident up with other similar incidents all throughout the trip. In the end, he was the living embodiment of the "Ugly American' (see photo below).

It's for this reason that I implore you to visit Cuba now, before direct travel from the US is made available to all Americans, and before Cuba is transformed into the Myrtle Beach of the Caribbean (golf courses and high-rise hotels as far as the eye can see). Cuba is SUCH a unique & special country. I know it's an over-used cliche, but, in so many ways, the Cuba of today really is a living, breathing time capsule. However, I'm afraid that's all going to change the minute any American can plug 'HAV' into Orbitz and purchase a direct flight to Havana from the US. And, once Cuba opens up to all Americans, it will never be the same ... NEVER. The unique/special Cuba of today will be gone forever. So, again, if you have even the slightest interest in visiting Cuba, do yourself a favor, and do so NOW before this guy ruins it for everyone ...

The dreaded Ugly American

The dreaded Ugly American

us/cuba relations - a step in the Right direction

This week I'd originally planned on writing about my initial impressions of Cuba after my first people-to-people tour experience back in May/June of 2012. However, given the historical shift in US/Cuba relations last week, there's simply no way I can resist the urge to add my two cents. However, before I dive into last week's historical developments, I'd like to sincerely thank those of you who actually took the time to read my first blog post. I'd also like to add, in an interesting turn of events, that group did NOT include my own Mother. Yes, it's true, the one person on Earth I thought I could count on to read my first blog post apparently had more important things to do (she's retired btw). When I asked her (somewhat excitedly/nervously) what she thought of my first blog post, she looked at me like I'd asked her to recite the square root of Pi. Talk about an awesome boost of confidence. Muchas gracias Madre. That's okay though, because this week I've decided to print out my first two blog posts and put them in her Christmas card. Feliz Navidad Madre. Anyway, I digress ... on to the events of last week.

Wow, just wow. Those were the first thoughts that crossed my mind immediately after learning of the historical developments of last Wednesday, December 17, 2014. Although I knew from multiple sources that President Obama would likely do something pertaining to Cuba (via his Executive Powers) before leaving office, I honestly didn't expect it to happen this soon. By the way, when I say "I knew from multiple sources," I don't mean to imply in any way that I'm either cool or connected, I'm just a nerd that reads anything I can get my hands on pertaining to Cuba, and I'd read several pieces that discussed President Obama's desire to address US/Cuba relations. 

My second thought was a sense of almost overwhelming happiness for the Cuba citizens (more on that later). In case anyone wonders where I stand on normalizing relations with Cuba (and ending the embargo), let me state (with the UTMOST RESPECT for Cuban Americans & Cuban Exiles) that I 100% support President Obama's move towards normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba. I also 100% support an immediate end to the Cuban Embargo. I could go on for days as to why I feel this way (and nobody wants that), so I'll just briefly state that our (the United States') relationship/policy when it comes to Cuba has never really made much sense to me. Someone once said (and I'm paraphrasing), when it comes to our foreign policy decisions pertaining to Cuba, the US seems to have lost its mind. They were implying that, for whatever reasons, the US has consistently bungled its policy decisions involving Cuba going back decades. Although I'm no policy expert, I couldn't agree more with that line of thought. For example, I've never understood our willingness to (re)establish diplomatic relations with the likes of Vietnam, China, Burma, Venezuela, Iraq, and so on, but yet, not Cuba. This is just my opinion, but, when it comes to Cuba, it seems like the US has often played the role of the spoiled kid in the sandbox who doesn't get his way, so he decides to pick up his ball and go home. I understand US/Cuba policy is extremely complex, and by no means am I implying the US is solely to fault when it comes to our past issues with Cuba, I also understand there are many, many issues left to be resolved between our two countries. It's just I've never understood why the US hasn't made more of an effort to engage Cuba with the same respect we've shown other countries (including countries we've had issues with in the past). Now, I'm not completely naive, I know the main reason comes down to one word ... politics ... but, it still never really made sense to me. So, I'm absolutely thrilled that both the US & Cuba have taken such a huge positive step towards normalizing diplomatic relations.

My third thought upon hearing the news was, boy, I bet the likes of Marco Rubio (R-FL), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Mario Diaz-Balart (R, FL 25th), and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R, FL 27th) are gonna be PISSED. That was a no-brainer given their well-documented positions on US/Cuba relations. As they've stated many times (and then re-stated within seconds of President Obama's press conference last week), they're going to do everything in their collective power (and they've got some serious political sway) to reverse/block/defeat President Obama's policy shift on Cuba. Now, let me be 100% clear here, while I strongly disagree with their collective opinions on US/Cuba policy/relations, I also strongly respect their collective rights to those opinions. I also want to point out that I'm not Cuban. I'm not even Cuban-American. So, my opinions on Cuba are coming from an entirely different place than those mentioned above. For example, never in my life have I (nor any member of my family) been negatively impacted by a single act of the Castro Regime (unless you count the CIA-like inspections the security guards do of my camera bag/gear at the airport in Havana). Also, I've never had property/bank accounts of mine confiscated by the Castro Regime, I've never had a family member killed/tortured/imprisoned by the Castro Regime, and I've never been exiled from my home country/family because of the Castro Regime. As such, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart, I 100% respect all others (including those named above) who have opposite opinions from mine relative to US/Cuba relations. It comes down to this for me ....The only shoes I've ever walked in are my own, so I can only speak from my own personal experiences.

Now I'd like to elaborate on my second thought above after hearing the historical news last week. That thought was overwhelming happiness for the Cuban citizens. Having visited Cuba so many times in the last couple of years, I can unequivocally state that the average Cuban citizen deserves SO MUCH BETTER than their current situation. Unless you actually travel to Cuba and see it with your own eyes, it's almost impossible to describe how difficult an average day can be for Cuban citizens. The best way to describe it is that every single day for the average Cuban citizen is a flat-out grind. All of the things I so often take for granted rarely come easy (if they ever come at all) for the average Cuban citizen. This is especially true when it comes to food (they still use ration cards ... ration cards!), clothing (I can't begin to tell you how many Cuban kids I see going shirtless/shoeless, and not by choice), shelter (you simply wouldn't believe the poor structural conditions of so many of the homes, it's unreal), and public transportation (ask any Cuban about the insane bus lines/queues). It's because of these surreal things I've seen and witnessed first-hand in Cuba that I feel so strongly about normalizing our diplomatic relationship with Cuba and ending the embargo.

I understand the argument that normalization of diplomatic relations and/or ending the embargo will lead to more money in the hands of the Castro Regime (no doubt, it will). However, at least SOME of that money WILL trickle down to the average Cuban citizen. The best jobs for Cubans are any jobs that allow for the possibility of gratuities. That's why you see so many doctors/engineers/architects driving cabs & tending bar in Havana. That's why restaurant/hotel jobs are so coveted by Cubans. It's my understanding the average Cuban earns a MONTHY salary roughly equivalent to $24 US dollars. Yes, $24 US dollars a MONTH (roughly $288 US dollars annually). So, any job in which a Cuban can earn a gratuity can absolutely change their lives immensely. From there, it's common sense ... If the embargo is lifted, you're looking at an estimated annual increase in US tourists traveling to Cuba from roughly 100,000 a year now to roughly 2,000,000 a year. That type of increase in tourism equals more jobs for Cuban citizens in the tourism industry (if nothing else, out of pure necessity). Will the majority of that money end up in the hands of the Castro Regime? Yes. However, will some of that money also trickle down to the average Cuban citizen? Absolutely. Simply put, ending the embargo will help better the lives of the average Cuban citizen, and I'm all for that.

I know I've said it before, but it's worth repeating ... The Cuban citizens I've met have been, to the person, intelligent, kind, good, hospitable people. In all my travels to Cuba, I've yet to meet a Cuban citizen that's had one negative thing to say about the US and/or Americans. To the contrary, their faces ALWAYS light up when I tell them I'm from the "Estados Unidos" (apparently I give off a Canadian and/or German vibe, because those are the two nationalities most Cubans think I am ... my apologies in advance btw to both Canada & Germany for that). However, when they learn I'm from the US, they instantly want to engage me in conversation about ANYTHING related to the US. I can honestly say, in all my experiences talking with Cuban citizens in the streets, almost every person I've spoken with has shown (without an ulterior motive) a genuine interest in, and affection for, Americans. Now, I'm not a total idiot, I'm certain there are Cubans out there that surely dislike both the US & Americans, it's just I've yet to meet one, and that's the absolute truth.

In summary, if normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba (and ultimately ending the embargo) will help the average Cuban citizen (and it will), I'm all for it. What's that? You say ending the embargo will only help keep the Castro Regime in power? Last time I checked, the Castro Regime has been in control of Cuba since January 1, 1959. Also, last time I checked, the embargo has been in place since 1960 (in full effect since 1962). Enough is enough. So, even if it's just to yourself when no one else is listening, it's time to admit that the embargo has been a complete and utter FAILURE as a means of toppling the Castro Regime (in fact, many would argue it's had the opposite effect). History has PROVEN the embargo has been a failure. The Cuban Embargo has now been in place for 54 years. I honestly don't understand how any logical/objective person can continue to argue in good faith that the embargo has (in any way) helped remove the Castro Regime from power. Given what 54 years of history have clearly shown us, my question to the pro-embargo crowd is simple ... How much longer must the average Cuban citizen suffer? ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.

The real victims of the Cuban Embargo, the average Cuban citizen - Havana 2013

The real victims of the Cuban Embargo, the average Cuban citizen - Havana 2013

welcome to my cuba blog aka (cuc)blog

After much deliberation and thought on the matter, I've decided to add a blog to the website. I've actually wanted a blog on the site for a while now. However, given my utter lack of writing talent, combined with my inept grasp of anything resembling proper grammar, I was hesitant to advertise my shortcomings to the world ... not that anyone outside of my family (more specifically, my Mom), will actually read this blog ... Anyway, it finally dawned on me that this is MY website, and therefore I can make a grammatical fool of myself if I please. So, let my assault on the English language begin (*full disclaimer- I'm actually a bi-lingual offender, so I'm also guaranteed to screw up any Spanish I'm foolish enough to attempt in this blog*). 

As an aside, not that anyone cares, but the somewhat stupid name for this blog "(cuc)blog" is a reference to the Cuban Convertible Peso (called 'CUC' for short). The CUC is one of the two currencies used in Cuba at this time (the CUC is primarily used by tourists). The other currency is the Cuban Peso (used by Cuban citizens).

I already feel like I'm getting long-winded, but I do feel the need to point out that I'm far from perfect (seriously, just ask any girl I've ever dated). I also feel the need to point out that I've never once claimed to be an expert on any subject, especially on Cuba. So, WHEN (not if) I get something wrong here pertaining to anything Cuba-related (actually, pertaining to anything), please, by all means, feel free to call me out and correct my mistake(s). 

Although I'm no expert on Cuba, I would like to add that I've traveled to Cuba more times in the last two years than I can remember (I lied, it's actually 10 times and counting). So, while I can't offer you the viewpoint of an "official" expert on Cuba (whatever that may be), I can state that everything I'll talk about/discuss on this blog will 100% come from my own personal experiences in, and travels to, Cuba (unless I note otherwise). In other words, although many so-called experts may have strong opinions on Cuba & Cuba-centric issues, not all have actually taken the time to travel to Cuba to experience Cuba first-hand for themselves. It's one thing to read about Cuba in books and watch programs about Cuba on TV; but It's a whole different ballgame to actually walk down the streets of Centro Habana, to talk to Cubans in the streets & in their homes, and to actually see the very real hardships the Cuban people face every single day.

One of the things law school taught me (and there weren't many, lol), is to gather as much objective information/evidence as possible so that I can formulate my own thoughts/opinions based on that information and my personal experiences (rather than simply following the leader and regurgitating the same old positions/story lines of those who came before). I say that because I'm certain I'll end up offending people at some point with what I write on this blog (although I'd never do so intentionally). The honest truth is, I really don't care. I don't say that to sound like an arrogant jackass. It's just that I don't care if I unintentionally offend people because (1) it's impossible to please everyone, and (2) these are MY personal opinions that I've arrived at based on MY own personal experiences in Cuba, nothing more, nothing less.

Last but not least, although I truly love the country & people of Cuba, I give you my word that there are absolutely no hidden agendas here. None. Zero. I'm neither a PR person for the Cuban Government, nor am I working to undermine the Cuban Government. There are things I absolutely love about Cuba, and, well, there are things about Cuba that I respectfully disagree with and frankly don't understand (and probably never will). In the end, I'm certain I'll offend people on both sides of the Cuba debate.

For the first blog post I thought I'd just briefly share a little more background as to how I ended up getting hooked on Cuba, as well as how/when I started traveling to Cuba. Like I said on the 'about' page, while I don't recall exactly when my man-crush on Cuba first began, I do know that Cuba has fascinated me from day one. I've always loved history, and I've always loved an underdog (so says the guy who's a Barcelona & NY Yankees fan). I know that my initial interest in Cuba began because I saw it as a "forbidden island" that Americans couldn't visit. However, my real fascination with Cuba began to grow after I started studying the country and its history as a whole (rather than focusing solely on post-revolutionary Cuba as many people often do). Also, and I really don't mean to sound condescending, but I truly felt sorry for Cubans when I learned they weren't allowed to leave their own country (which was the case at the time). Come to think of it, and if I'm being honest, I still feel sorry for Cubans for a number of different reasons (and I say that with the utmost respect for the Cuban people ... not that they need me to feel sorry for them). However, that's a topic of its own for another day.

How I actually first traveled to Cuba was as simple as this ... one day in 2012 I just got tired of hearing myself say "I really want to go to Cuba blah blah blah." I was always saying the same thing, "I wish" this, and "I wish" that. Well, I got tired of wanting & wishing, so I decided to actually do something about it for once in my unmotivated life. I started researching how I could (legally, cough cough) travel to Cuba as an American citizen. Long story short, I discovered People-to-People Cultural Tours via a company named Insight Cuba. I think I found out about Insight Cuba (who I like very much) via a Google search or a NY Times travel review. Anyway, I didn't hesitate to sign both myself and my brother up for the 'Weekend in Havana' tour. That weekend trip to Havana, my first ever, took place between May 31 - June 3 of 2012. I still enjoy looking at those first two Cuba stamps in my passport (yes, they'll stamp your US passport if you ask them to ... and sometimes even if you don't ask). If there was ever any question whether I was hooked on Cuba before that first trip (there wasn't), I was 100% hooked on Cuba after that first trip. True story, when I first saw the Malecón in-person on that Thursday, May 31, 2012, it made such an impression on me that I was already planning my return visit ... and third visit... and so on. I knew there was absolutely no way a single weekend in Havana was going to satisfy my life-long Cuba crush. 

Well, that's enough for this first post. I can't image that anyone actually read this entire post (other than Mom). However, if you did, I truly appreciate it, and I promise future posts will be better once I figure out what I'm actually doing (and once I reach the writing level of a sixth grader). For my next post, I'll write about my first impressions of Cuba (good & bad) during & after that first trip in 2012.

Thanks again for visiting, and I love you Mom.

Cubans on a park bench in La Havana Vieja - This was the very first photo I ever took in Cuba. It was taken before we even exited the bus in La Habana Vieja. I wasn't even off the bus and I couldn't wait to start shooting photos!

Cubans on a park bench in La Havana Vieja - This was the very first photo I ever took in Cuba. It was taken before we even exited the bus in La Habana Vieja. I wasn't even off the bus and I couldn't wait to start shooting photos!