Friday, June 9, 2017

Mileage Run Preview: Yes, this is real life.

"Double window addiction"
First off- I finished writing up my Havana trip!!  Final post with all the other links in it here!

Okay, so, I figure at this point that of the people who are reading this blog still at this point, 95% of them have classified me as certifiably crazy, 3% are other mileage runners I've met along the way, and 2% are my Mom and Mrs. CruisingAltitude, although at this point I have good intel...the BEST intel...that they don't even read most of it. 

However, I'm of the opinion that my next mileage run is totally something the average person would entirely enjoy.  It's fully understandable to fly in and out of Doha 3 times in 4 days, right? Right.

Here's how this came about- As you probably didn't read (mostly because it was a whopper of a mileage run, and I haven't finished posting it yet) in February, I and some brave souls, flew entirely around the world in 80 hours.  The main flight that got us there was from Columbo, Sri Lanka to Boston via Doha.  It was a round trip booking, but that trip only used half of it, so I have the return flight to take in about a week. This, of course, leaves me 'stranded' in Columbo.  So, what's a mileage runner to do?

Well, go to Cairo, of course.  Okay, sure, Cairo isn't exactly on the way back from Columbo to Los Angeles, but hear me out. Remember when the Egyptian pound got un-pegged and took a tumble last year?  No?  Well, it did.  This suddenly made tickets that booked in that currency 'cheap.'  This is one of the strange hidden benefits of booking tickets that start around the world if you get lucky.  So, I found a very cheap one-way business class ticket from CAI to Houston through Doha on Qatar and booked it.  You have to admit that though Cairo isn't exactly 'on the way' from Sri Lanka, it is at least closer than many other places are.  So, I figured that one way or another I could connect those flights.  It's a doable, but fairly expensive mileage flight since Sri Lanka is considered 'Inidian Subcontinient' and Cairo is considered "Africa" for purposes of Oneworld partner awards, but it was an option. 

Then, as it turns out, the Sri Lankan Rupee wasn't having a great time (I assumed) and Qatar has a lot of capacity and competition from Sri Lankan, which is also a Oneworld partner, out of CMB this year.  What this resulted in was another cheap one-way ticket find a few months later for a business class itinerary from CMB to Cairo through Doha, also on Qatar.

So..... that gets me to and from Columbo with just the need for a couple domestic positioning flights- one to Boston to start it, and one back from Houston to finish it.  Since I have to be in Houston that month for work anyway, the latter takes care of itself this time around.

If you didn't bother to sort out all that nonsense, I can encapsulate it this way- I'm spending the weekend flying around the Middle East and India in business class, spending each night in Doha.  I'm going to have between 8 and 15 hours on the ground inn Doha each night, and about 7 hours in Columbo to actually leave the airport and see a few things.

All in all, it's made up of 5 different itineraries, 9 flights, 7 airports, and only two airlines - American and Qatar.  Should be fun...

"The Pearl" Qatar



Wait for it....

.....Keep waiting

Okay....yes, what follows is real life.....

Imagine at this point in reading (or as I did, writing) this post you took a break to get on a flight, wait out said flight's delay, fly to Houston, land at 2am, get luggage, Uber to a hotel and pass out for the night.  Then imagine you wake the next morning to an inundation of texts/emails/news alerts blaring that Qatari planes are being banned from one airspace after another indefinitely.  First are Saudis, then the UAE, and next ...of course.... is Egypt.....followed by the Maldives, Mauritius, part of Syria...the list continues...

Well.  This sucks.

Update to now, and it's been a strange week.  I'm currently in the middle of an unrelated work trip, and have had to spend every break trying to call Qatar to get some kind of help with this situation.  I have called the US number probably 20 times, sat on hold for hours, finally broke down and started trying to call their worldwide offices - London, Sydney, you name it.  I even filled out a 'call back' form days ago.  They called me back too late, and the call was actually coming from Doha, so I probably paid a few bucks to tell them so.

I finally, finally, managed to get someone on the phone late yesterday and they hung up on me once they saw my travel plans.  I was unintentional.  I eventually got past the point of annoyance and just moved on to disbelief.  The specter of flying to Sri Lanka without knowing how exactly I was getting home, even for me is a little much.  Just a little.

After another hour of hold time, I got someone else on the phone and tried to explain myself.  It was a long explanation.  Fixing one itinerary in this mess is a lot, fixing two when they include a tight turn around in a city they can't fly to is something else entirely.  

I have to give credit where it's due though.  It took over an hour of work, but the agent eventually got it done, though not without putting me on short holds to (I assume) control herself since something about my travel plans she found particularly hilarious.  I can't imagine why.  At one point I think I heard her coworkers in the background, also laughing at me.  The words "why wouldn't you just go direct" came up more than once.  I can only imagine the scene at a call center someplace.  I feel reasonably famous.  

But nevertheless she persisted, and re-routed me on a turnaround to Amman, Jordan instead of my Cairo flights.  I'll take it. We're friends now, and apparently I 'made her day.'  That's really all I'm after with this anyway.

So, where does that all leave us?  Well it currently leaves me sitting in the Houston Centurion lounge having a latte and writing about it.  Next up is a quick hop IAH-CLT-BOS to get this thing started.  Everything's cleared for the upgrades, and it looks like a good day to fly!

Wish me luck,


Friday, June 2, 2017

Havana Running Part 12- Can You SEA Me Now?


Preview: What Would Hemmingway Do?

Part 1: Relaxing

Part 2: I Promise Not To Call This Sleepless In Seattle

And now, the conclusion....

Well friends, here we are, the last flight of the weekend.  I'm sitting in 1C to finish it off.  To say the least this trip has been an experience.  I didn't end up getting stranded (read released) in LA.  The Miami flight made up time, and the Seattle flight was a few minutes behind so trying the 'I couldn't make my flight' argument wasn't going to pass the sniff test.  

My family is out of town, so instead of fighting through LA traffic at 5pm, I've taken a little jaunt up north to Seattle.  My total ground time was about 20 minutes.  It was just enough to remember how late the daylight lasts here this time of year.  8pm and it's not even dusk yet. 

The flight up was beautiful, watching the desert fade into hills and mountains.   There's the added bonus of having the same flight crew on the turn around.  I'm enough of an oddity/amusement tonight for the 1st cabin flight attendant he's got my order down when I walk back on the plane.  It's the little things.  Besides, I'm okay with being an oddity, clearly.

As usual, the end of a mileage run is a high altitude mix of satisfaction, tiredness, and a fair amount of nostalgia.  There's both the exhaustion of flying for what amounts to days on end, combined with that let down feeling of coming back from vacation.  You both want to be home badly, and are bemoaning it at the same time. 
On the bright side, it seems like my precious cargo is surviving the journey, and for once I've managed to keep up fairly well with writing my posts (if not actually posting them). 

I've come to realize that you get a strong sense of a place from just a day or two there.  I've said that mileage running is essentially having a 'first date' with cities around the world.  You know whether you want to try it again.  Havana is intriguing- I think a second date is in order if the flight deals are right, but I'm not about to move there.  I'd definitely encourage anyone who's curious to go check it out, and the sooner the better before people realize it's so accessible now. 

It's been great to have so many people who (seem anyway) to be following along with me on this trip.  I mostly write about my travels for my own sake- to remember the details in the moment for later, but if it provides some entertainment and information to anyone else, all the better.

This year has been busy so far.  Between mileage trips, work travel, and family vacations, I'm headed for requalification early.  I have one more scheduled trip soon that's wonderful and convoluted and takes me through Doha x3 with side trips to Colombo and Cairo.  I'm just putting together the finishing touches on the itinerary- hotels, 'one thing to see,' and the like.  Since it's Summer in Doha, the hotel and tourist deals are amazing (like free night at the Ritz, too good to be true so I'm skeptical even with a confirmation number in hand amazing).  I'm hoping to have a preview post up of it all soon. 

Next after that is family travel to Europe!! We're taking Baby Flyer to Helsinki (thanks to Finnair having some great award space in business class this Summer) and then on to Tallinn and Copenhagen!  We'll be keeping up with this one over on Baby Flyer Blog, which is where we post about travel with the kiddo- the good, the bad, and the things that make it easier (even fun). 

Until the next flight, travel well,


Thursday, June 1, 2017

Havana Running Part 11- Miami Vexed


I'm clearly already missing Havana, and its chaotic but uncomplicated self.  Not 3 hours into my return to 'real life' and I'm running to the gate before boarding time to AGAIN find they're halfway through the boarding process on an oversold a321.  What does a flyer have to do around here to get a decent gate announcement? I just wanted to finish my mimosa after my massage in the lounge.  Life's hard sometimes.
Sometimes I forget that the Miami-LAX flight has been crowned a 'transcon' by AA, and therefore is one of the few left with the cachet of upscale flying within the US.  You're lucky if you get a blanket on 'regular' flights these days, let alone a pillow.  It was a nice little surprise to get onboard and find the 'big' blanket set and an amenity kit waiting for me.  There's also personal IFE, which also sadly has been going the way of the Dodo lately around these parts.

At least they passed the PDB tray this time, and it wasn't just water.

I sit down next to a nice single serving friend from the OC and we chat about all the normal things- flights, kids, the extended tarmac delay that was just announced.  And then he goes and asks for milk with ice and I realize I'm sitting next to a Ryan Bingham wannabe, who also happens to think its appropriate to go barefoot enroute, and it's just over.

Half an hour later, we finally roll the runway.  I've already been on the phone with AA preparing to miss my next connection.  Unless we make up time in the air, and have the illusive empty gate at LAX, I'm likely not going to make the flight to SEA.  Now, I'll admit that I have mixed feelings about this.  I'll likely get a refund on that 'small' part of the itinerary, but I also may not get my qualifying miles for it, and since that's the entire point here.... On the other hand, I'll be in LA...and I could just go home early.  So, I'll just let the chips fall where they may on this one. 

Being jolted back to the flight at hand (literally)- Airbus, can you seriously not manage to design a plane where the IFE can handle even mild chop?  Whenever we hit a couple bumps, the system freezes.  Come on people, its an airplane, and you had one job.  I'd like to say 'if it's not Boeing, I'm not going, but AA has taken that choice away from me.  

So far, this is one of those flights where, as a great pilot I once had would have made the announcement that "as you might have noticed by this point, you are in fact on an airplane."  This is to say- we're getting kicked around pretty good up here.  
The service has been slow, partly because of the turbulence, but also just because it's slow.  I'm not usually one to get bent out of shape about that (no, seriously, stop laughing) but sometimes on a long multi segment run like this you just want to have your meal and try to get a little rest before landing.  As it stands, we're not going to have our plates cleared until short final.

In better news, as the flight goes on it seems like we're making up time, so if we get there with an open gate I may have the chance to make my onwards flight.  Mealy tray 'half full,' right?


Havana Running Part 10- Good Morning and Goodbye

Dawn breaks over Havana, the Moon and Venus bright.  Looks like a beautiful day to fly.

Preview: What Would Hemmingway Do?

Part 1: Relaxing

Part 2: I Promise Not To Call This Sleepless In Seattle

Without fail, the rooster work me up the next day well before my alarm.  And my alarm was early, so this chicken was the definition of the 'early bird.'  I'm not bitter.  Not at all. I got myself up and dressed in time to see the sun start to rise over the city.  I have to groggily admit it was beautiful. 

I'd arranged for a taxi the day before with the owner of my casa, and the driver was waiting at 6:30.  I said goodbye to Jorge and got in the car, which this time was one of the classic cars I'd seen around the city.  It just completed the check list of 'things to do in Havana' for me.  Sure it was slow, bouncy, and loud, but it's 'what you do' here at least once.
They tell you to arrive at HAV airport early- at least hours, if not 3, for flights to the US.  I get the precaution, as I've heard about long slowly moving lines for check in and passport control, but I could have been through all the checkpoints and waiting at the gate in 20 minutes or less this particular morning. As a caveat, I wasn't checking luggage, and I could use the priority check in for AA, which didn't have much of a line.

What my return luggage looked like. 
 Why I didn't make it through to the gate in 20 minutes, though, was that I hadn't calculated perfectly the money I changed to do my cigar shopping, and as a result had some extra CUCs to change back.  This was probably the first time I really understood some of the frustration with getting things done in Cuba.  There clearly was a money exchange by the check in.  When I went there and got to the front of the line asking for USD back, they promptly acted like they were closed, didn't speak any English, and told me to go downstairs.  I went downstairs, and they sent me upstairs.  This continued for several go-rounds until the original place grudgingly decided to understand me finally and changed my money back.   
Of course there was a fee in addition to the one I'd paid to change it in the first place. If you plan well enough, bring Euros or Pesos for a better exchange rate, but for a short trip I didn't bother.

 The Havana airport is small, unsurprisingly, but does have some places to get a quick snack or coffee, as well as some duty free shops that were well utilized.  The departures hall for international flights is basically one room and serves everything.  I saw non-stops to Madrid and Berlin, alongside the little guys headed to Cancun and Miami.
As would be expected, the gate on the boarding pass wasn't the one we actually departed from, and I don't remember hearing any kind of formal audible announcement about the gate change.  However, it didn't matter much since everything was in such close quarters.  I saw the inbound plane pulling in, and just moved over to where it eventually parked. As always, it's a comforting thing to see the "American Tail" roll up to the gate in a foreign country.  Familiar in the foreign. 
Impressively, we boarded more or less on time and with minimal confusion and pushed back on schedule.  The flight crew was pleasant, even though (or maybe because) they seemed new to the job, and even more new to international flights.  We took off and got a last look at Havana out of the windows before heading back north.  It was a bit of a hazy morning, so the views weren't as dramatic as the way up, but still worth the time. 
 I had mixed feelings about hearing the initial decent announcement- mainly that my phone would finally work again....but also that my phone would work again.  Inevitable is as inevitable does though, and when we touched down I hurriedly switched back off of airplane mode to see what the world had been up to in the last 48 hours.

After we got off the plane, we had a long hike from one end of MIA to the other to go through customs.  Much to my relief, I had absolutely zero issues getting through.  I have Global Entry, and it worked exactly like it does for every other destination.  No one wanted to see my proof of being a journalist or otherwise.  I was through and into the departures area again in a matter of minutes.

One more flight down, a few more to go.


Havana Running Part 9- When Life Gives You a Night In Cuba...


.....Add new friends and maybe a little vodka.

But first, the story so far:
So, funny story.  I don't quite know what piqued my interest in the restaurant I wound up in on Sunday night.  Maybe it was current events, maybe it was history.  Or, maybe it was just my need to see a sunset over the water- I was visiting an island after all.

Whatever the purpose, the result was that as the afternoon wore on and I was feeling proud of myself for wrapping up my bit of shopping, I found myself walking toward the Malecon- the sea wall and promenade that makes up the northern boarder of the city.  I hadn't made it all the way to the water yet in my exploring, so I wanted to check it out.

To get there I passed El Floridita, and cut through toward the capital building.  This area is made up of cleaner, wider streets and avenues.  It has some of the city's only 'luxury' stores, and many of the larger hotels.  It's decidedly more 'upscale' feeling than the narrow streets of Habana Vieja, but possibly less charming as well. 

Between the capital and the start of the Malecon you head up Paseo De Marti, which has a raised median for pedestrians that serves as just about everything this time of day- impromptu market, dance hall, skate park, and art gallery.  It extends for several blocks, and takes you to the waterfront eventually. 

It just so happens that one of the more intriguing and random recommendations I came across in my trip planning was for a soviet themed/run/founded/inspired restaurant in this area that was rumored to have a great view of the water.  This is what happens when you spend your week before a trip googling "Havana Restaurant View."  Apparently, these are the keywords to a memorable time that leaves you feeling confused the next time you are within range of current newscasts.

Something about this prospect just seemed strange (and maybe a little timely) enough that I needed to check it out for myself.  As it turned out, it wasn't hard to find.  Between the red flag flying from the 3rd floor balcony, and the friendly man at the door holding a menu I pretty much sorted out I'd found it.
I headed up three flights of narrow stairs (which at this point in the trip has become par for the course) passing Soviet era posters all the way, and found myself in a modestly sized restaurant with both inside and terrace tables.  The interior was air conditioned, but the view outside was what I came for.  I found a shady table on the balcony and a waiter brought me the menus.  One for food, and one for vodka, all printed in Spanish, Cyrillic, and English. The menu also provided the backstory for the restaurant, as well as some useful proverbs....

Since it was still well before sunset, I started with a drink and took some time to just relax after the afternoon of hiking around the city.  The place wasn't full, so I didn't feel bad ordering slowly.  It takes a significant amount of time for the over-connected, information saturated of us to get used to being out of touch, and to start to enjoy the feeling.  It was about half way through my vodka tonic that I really started to unwind. 

The road below wasn't too busy- a few classic cars and busses going by, and the water just a few feet beyond that was calm.  This city is growing on me.

My trips of late have been taking me to places that are the opposite of this- all overly hyped, modern cities that have had such rapid expansion that in many ways culture and charm haven't had a chance to keep up.  They are breathtaking and luxurious, but also exhausting to try and explore.  Many also use their skylines and fast trains to distract from the large part of their residents who haven't had the good fortune to be part of the success. 

Havana doesn't allow for this- there's no cover up.  What you see (and you will see a lot you might not have been expecting) is pretty much just what you get.  The city is a mix of renovated history, crumbling landmarks, and passivity about it all.  You might get woken up by a chicken at 4am, but no one's pretending he's not there for the sake of a 5-star rating, and they'll proudly serve you fresh eggs with breakfast.

I did eventually order an appetizer and another drink, though I couldn't quite bring myself to have the perogies or borsht on an 85deg afternoon.  I went with a salad with pickled vegetables that was surprisingly generous and refreshing.  Here, as just about everywhere I went, the prices were extremely reasonable by foreign standards- drinks for $3-$4, meals for $10. 

 As these trips tend to go, I ended up chatting with some other travelers from the US the next table over.  From this, and the other people I met in transit, I can say that the current visa requirements seem quite relaxed.  No one I met had a strictly defined 'reason' for their trip, and no one seems to have had any issues.  It's still a good idea to familiarize yourself with the current rules and to have everything in place in advance so you know what to say and where to go. 
It did eventually become sunset, which did not disappoint.  Everyone stopped to take pictures as the sun disappeared over the water.  The night started to finally cool off, and eventually I headed back through the city to the Plaza Vieja to get dinner closer to 'home.'  I'll say again how safe it felt walking around, even cutting through the edge of 'Centro' at night.  Again, not clean and shiny by any means, but safe.
What's also striking about Havana is that the entire city is a giant urban art gallery.  Mingling with the obviously commissioned sculpture and the intricate building facades is a multitude of impromptu wall art, murals, and shops selling paintings everywhere.  You get the feeling that this is just part of the culture...because there's time for such pursuits.  And not in the full-time, starving artist trying to make it big and get a wealthy patron way, but in an organic, 'because I can, and I should' way. 
Just one more reason to make days in Havana long, even if it makes the nights short.  Up next- an early morning to start the trip home.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Havana Running Part 8: Searching, Shopping, and Stumbling Through Havana


I'd like to think I'm a quick study in a lot of ways, but the ins and outs of buying Cuban cigars was a challenge.  This is likely because going in I knew absolutely nothing going in.  My faltering high school Spanish doesn't help either. 
I only happened to be roaming around Havana looking for cigars in the first place as a favor to a friend, but it also seemed like one of the 'things you do' on a trip to Cuba.  Plus, trying to search out and then go to the legitimate shops in town gave me more reason to explore and stumble upon other sights.  Havana is the type of place that overwhelms the senses in many ways, and you can walk the same street several times, and see things differently with each pass.

Stumbling upon beauty on the way to someplace else
Cigars are, unsurprisingly, very commonly counterfeit.  Because the more famous ones aren't cheap, even at the source, this trade is lucrative.  Knowing this sent my paranoia into overdrive, and resulted in my doing a fair bit of comparison shopping, and incremental money changing.  

Statue in the entryway
The actual process of the purchase was fairly straightforward once I learned what of the types on my 'shopping list' they had in the store.  Even though I felt like a total poser, I went through the process of checking the boxes for the required seals, stamps, and barcodes.  I'm sure they knew I was winging it, but they were already laughing at me for coming in three times in an hour, so what do I care? 

Interior doors of Casa Del Ron Cigars and Rum 
In the end I made the majority of my purchases at the Casa Del Habanos shop called Casa Ron which, coincidentally, is directly next door to La Floridita- a common haunt of Hammingway back in the day, and the self proclaimed 'Cradle of the Daquiri.'

Grabbing a spot at the bar at Bar Floridita
As an aside- this place is very well known and packed in the evenings, to the point of being uncomfortable.  If you're inclined to a bit of light day-drinking, even just for the atmosphere, I'd say that's your best bet with this place if you want a chance at a seat.  That said, the place is worth checking out, if only to watch the bartenders pour up to 20 daiquiris at a time, and to take a selfie with the bronze statue of 'Ernesto' who is immortalized, leaning on the bar. 
Ernesto, still at his favorite haunt
Also between the cigar shop and my Casa was the Plaza Del Cristo, which just so happens to be the location of El Chanchullero, a hole in the wall traditional Cuban restaurant with 5 tables, and a whole lot of good food, reasonably priced.  Finding this place was a challenge though, and I walked right by it several times.  To get there, find the plaza, and the restaurant is opposite the plaza in the middle of the block between Cristo and Bernaza.  Look for either a set of nicer big wooden doors, or if they're already serving, a crowd, and likely a line out the door.  Go early by a few minutes and wait for a table.
As became my tradition for the trip, I ordered the ropa vieja, which was made with pork here (I think).  It was much, much better than the one I got last time stateside in Houston a few weeks back.  However, I should have known I was in for a lackluster dish when the waiter tried to tell me that ropa vieja meant "old rope."  Google it.
After lunch, I wandered back through the city to my Casa to change my clothes (a perfunctory task though, given how even 5 minutes outside in Havana and you're sweaty again) and to put away my shopping before heading out again to check out the waterfront and get dinner. 
On the way back, a particularly stunning building caught my eye, and I headed into the open foyer.  It turned out to be the lobby of the Raquel Hotel, who's signature is the well maintained stained glass ceiling.  There's also a restaurant in the lobby and a bar if you want to stay awhile and enjoy it.   I wouldn't have minded a little more time, but there was another part of the city I wanted to make sure I checked out before the sun went down, so after a few minutes I went on my way.
And that is a story for the next update...

Havana Running Part 7- When the Rooster Crows

Morning wandering around Havana, after some strong coffee.
I did eventually give in and go home for the night, and tried to get a good night's sleep.  The bed wasn't the most comfortable I've ever had, but it also wasn't the worst.  Around 6 am I woke up to the unmistakable sound of a rooster crowing??? What the???
Now, as you may or may not know, long before my Los Angeles living and mile chasing days, I grew up in a rural and rather secluded part of Washington State on a small farm in the woods.  This is all preface to say that it's not the first time in my life I've been woken by poultry, or various other critters.  It is, however the one and only time I've been woken by a chicken on a mileage run.
Needless to say, at this point I was still exhausted from my trip down, and a little extra from the Mojitos.  I spent the next two hours dozing and waking again every time the rooster crowed, wondering where the heck a chicken would be hanging out in this dense part of the city, and thinking spitefully about ordering arroz con pollo for lunch the first chance I got.  
Eventually, I gave in and wandered out to breakfast, where my questions were answered.  As I enjoyed Jorge's breakfast of fresh fruit, bread, and eggs with Cuban sausage, I looked around to realize that I was, in fact, sharing the rooftop with several hens, and an (admittedly cute) bantam rooster. 
Thankfully, the strong Cuban coffee that came with it managed to knock off the cobwebs left by the prior evening, and in about an hour all was forgiven.  I was ready to take care of what little business I needed to on this trip (besides writing about it) which was buying some cigars for a friend.  That bit of adventure is next. 
Buenos Dias,

Havana Running Part 6: Day Into Night

Preview: What Would Hemmingway Do?

It dawns on me about now that I can't even do the math through all the time zones to sort out how many hours it's been since I actually slept.  More than 24, at the very least.  
Though, in this moment I'm finding it near impossible to care.  I'm sitting on the terrace of a restaurant sipping a mojito while watching the daylight die, and the lights come to life over Plaza Habana Vieja to the sounds of competing live music from the cafes below.  

The balcony restaurant

There are street performers, people dancing, and children and dogs playing.  It's lively, though not in that overwhelming way that many city centers and tourist traps routinely become on a Saturday night.  This is festive, but approachable.  You almost get the feeling that this might all still go on all on its own even if the tourists left.  
The square itself, less than a block from my accommodations, could easily be something out of Florence or Madrid, but on a livable scale.  Buildings 3 or 4 stories high, and far better upkept than most others in the city.  There are no oppressive crowds, even though it's prime time on a Saturday 

Evening in Havana

Intuitively, I know I must be exhausted,but with this so close I find it hard to believe I'll be getting any real sleep until a few hours from now when the music ends and people go home (or at least don't stay here.). The longer I wait, the more the heat breaks, and the more comfortable it gets to just relax and watch this tiny slice of the world go by. 
I heard many times before coming here that the biggest challenge of Cuba was not to fall in love.  While so far I haven't managed to fall for the city generally, I just might understand the feeling in this particular moment. 

I just might have another.
Travel well & live memorably,

Monday, May 22, 2017

Havana Running Part 5: Bienvenido a La Habana

HAV Airport
Preview: What Would Hemmingway Do?

Part 1: Relaxing

Part 2: I Promise Not To Call This Sleepless In Seattle

Part 3: Just Sit Anywhere

Part 4: Taking It South

I'd heard horror stories about customs at HAV airport.  So had my fellow travelers, and we were all bracing for the worst when we got off the plane.  However, it turned out to be the exact opposite.  I don't know if it was because I was early off the plane, or because I didn't check luggage, or a combination of both, but it took me about 5 minutes, jetbridge to curb.  It was so fast I had to wait for my driver to arrive.  And he was on time, or at least as on time as there is in Cuba.
The airport itself is as you would expect- charmingly contained chaos, but on a small scale.  (Note from my future self a few entires from now- this will turn out to be more or less my experience with Havana generally, and I'm fine with that)  on the recommendation of other guests of my Casa, I didn't bother with changing cash at the airport, and instead skipped the lines and changed it with my host.  I'm not sure if this is a normal thing to do, but it worked out fine for me.
The view from my Casa
About 25 minutes later, my taxi rolled through the congested and narrow streets of Habana Vieja, and I was met by Jorge, my host.  He showed me up 4 flights of stairs to my room on the rooftop.  My room is small, but the facilities are renovated and it HAS AIR CONDITIONING that works!! The roof deck is common space, with tables where the guests of the several rooms Jorge rents relax between adventures, and where breakfast is served for $5 CUC per day.  US dollars convert to these 'Convertible Pesos' at 1 to 1, but with a 10% tax.  That's one downside of Cuba- you don't get the benefit of the strong dollar here, but most things are much cheaper than at home so it works out. 

Jorge gives me my key and the 411 on this part of Havana- don't change money on the street, don't buy cigars on the street, and understand that locals offering to 'go have a beer' are not buying you a drink, but offering for you to buy them one.  (This happens to me not 2 hours later, and it takes away any guilt I might have felt otherwise turning the guy down point blank.)
With those admonitions, he leaves me be and I get settled quickly, then head out into the city.  As a last minute thought, I'd printed out some maps of the area with points of interest, and they came in very handy.  
I'll just say that being old enough to have come of age before everyone had gps in their pockets has its benefits here.  As I got myself oriented, I made myself promise to teach babyflyer how to read a map for real.  It was so satisfying to be able to navigate confidently on my own without having to ask for directions.  Even though most places I go in the world in a pinch I can turn on my data roaming and pull up directions, or hail an Uber, it's a matter of basic travel to be able to map read well in a new city.  
I started out by walking around to a few of the more prominent sights in Habana Vieja- the Capitol, up to the start of the Malecon, and back through the narrow streets to the Plaza.  I knew I'd be best off finding dinner close to the Casa my first night, so I wandered the Plaza and found a balcony table overlooking the square. (My review of this in next post)
Plaza Vieja
My initial impressions of the city- having been a fairly widely ranged traveler the last several years, Havana is unique.  Everyone I'm sure says that, but I mean it in a particular way.  I've spent a fair amount of time in Mexico, as well as Peru, Euqador, and Panama, and Cuba is a more beautiful, more crumbling version of the best parts of these places.  The architecture, under the rubble, is stunning.  The detail, the grandeur, is beautiful and tragic in one.  
It's also, and I can't emphasize this enough, shockingly safe feeling to walk around, even as a solo female traveler.  Now, I don't want to give carte blanche to walking around at 2 am with cash visible in your pockets.  Like anywhere, common sense is important.  It also has that feeling you get in many places, especially in central and South America where you know everyone's got a hustle going, and haggling is commonplace for everything.  
What's different here is that while the streets I walk through are in disrepair, and anywhere else I've been would be solidly on the wrong side of the tracks- like back alley, dark doorways, stray dogs, sticking out like a sore thumb with my blond hair wrong side of the tracks- I feel safe.  The offers, the catcalls are there, but aside from maybe swindling me out of a beer or a few extra CUCs on a pedicab ride, I don't get that itchy feeling in my traveler brain that I better watch myself or something more seriously will happen.  It's both confusing and refreshing at the same time.  
Around Habana Vieja
I've heard that penalties for actual crimes against tourists are stiff here, and maybe that's the cause, but there's also an eerie feeling that no one here has much, but also no one has nothing.  I don't get asked for change on the street, but I get plenty of offers for directions, transport, and goods, all for a cost.  To me, it's far more preferable.  A simple 'no, gracias' and I'm on my way.  
After walking for about an hour, I have that telling feeling that if I don't find a place for dinner and relaxing soon, my body's going to tell me just exactly what it thinks about what I've put it through in the past 36 hours.  Heeding that, I head back to Plaza Vieja to see what I can do about that.  
Up next- an evening watching out over Havana.