New Year’s Cruise Days 8 & 9 – The Wrap Up

January 7, 2019 – Miami/Ft. Lauderdale

We woke up around 7:30 a.m. to prepare to disembark from the ship. We had placed a breakfast tag on the door, but there was no breakfast delivery this morning. De-boarding the ship was easy and we were off by 8:30. We located our bags and passed painlessly through US Customs without needing to fill out any forms or answer any questions.

We snuck to the front of the line and took a shuttle to Miami International Airport. At the airport we picked up a rental vehicle for the day – a very manly Dodge minivan. We packed everyone up and headed up I-95 for our hotel in Fort Lauderdale. Despite it being only around 10:00 a.m., we were actually able to check into our room.

We were getting hungry, so we set about looking for breakfast. We found the Moonlight Diner down the street. Moonlight was a kitschy 50s-style place with stainless steel outside walls and plenty of neon lights. The only thing missing was waitresses in poodle skirts. I caffeinated myself with a couple cups of Joe and ordered homemade corned beef hash with poached eggs.

After breakfast (or was it lunch?) we packed Mom’s bags into the van and I took her to the airport for her long flight home.

After a little rest, we packed up the boys and headed back to Miami to explore. We decided to visit Little Havana. As far ethnic neighborhoods go, Little Havana was nice, but not like the real thing. We walked down 8th Ave. (The famous “Calle Ocho”) looking at the art and shops. We passed by Domino Park, where old men played dominoes all day in groups of four.

We stopped at Azucar Ice Cream company for a sweet treat. Azucar is a family-owned ice cream shop that makes all their ice cream by hand in amazing flavors like dulce de leche, sweet plantain, and Coca Cola. The boys enjoyed their treat, and we enjoyed talking with the owner about his family’s ties back to Cuba.

After dessert, we found ourselves at the Esquina de la Fama (Corner of Fame) restaurant. Esquina proudly proclaims they have the best Cuban sandwiches in Miami. We ordered a round of sandwiches and listened to a lone musician play a mix of traditional Latin songs and instrumental covers of modern pop songs. The sandwiches were grilled panini-style and had ham, bacon, chorizo, cheese, and lettuce. Esquina’s take on the Cuban sandwich was good, but just didn’t feel quite the same as those we had in Havana. They cost a lot more too!

We left Little Havana for a place called Wynwood Walls. Wynwood is a former industrial neighborhood that has been revitalized into an art hub. The story goes that a warehouse owner caught a boy painting graffiti on his building. Rather than have the boy punished, the warehouse owner offered the boy payment to paint the entire wall. Soon other street artists were invited to paint walls in the neighborhood, transforming it to the art hub it is today, as well as giving street artists an outlet to practice their craft in a legal way. Some of the biggest names in street art have exhibits in the neighborhood.

As we walked around the neighborhood, we saw ESPN Deportes was doing live broadcasts celebrating both the 15th anniversary of ESPN Deportes and the College Football Playoff National Championship that was being played that night (in California).

We met a videographer, John Sierra from the Miami Medial School, who was walking around getting footage of the murals when he saw the boys. He asked if they wanted to be interviewed; of course they did. However, the normally talkative boys froze up once the camera started rolling (go figure). It was still a fun experience for them.

We braved Miami traffic back to the hotel and settled in, preparing for the flight home in the morning.


January 8, 2019 – Ft. Lauderdale to San Francisco

We awoke at 5:45 a.m. to head to the airport. We forced our full suitcases closed and headed out. We were worried about crowds at the airport, but we breezed through check-in and security, giving us well over an hour to spare.

We were sitting by the gate enjoying a breakfast of muffins and coffee when I was a guy walk by who looked oddly familiar. He bore a striking resemblance to someone famous, but I couldn’t quite put a name to the face at the time. I didn’t think much of it.

Our cross-country flight on JetBlue was much better than the one on United. For a “low cost” airline, they sure pull out all the stops. The seats had more room, the entertainment options were better, and they offer better snacks. They even have a pantry with snacks and drinks that they open to customers during the flight. The six-hour flight went very quickly.

After landing at San Francisco we headed to the baggage claim to get our bags. While in the baggage claim I saw famous-looking guy again and got to thinking. I pulled out my phone and did a quick Google search to confirm my suspicions. I then asked Alicia if she agreed with my theory about famous-looking guy. So what did Alicia do? She walked right up to him and asked. My suspicions were correct. Famous-looking guy was none other than 2012 World Series MVP, one of only four people to hit 3 home runs in a World Series game, San Francisco Giants hero, the Kung Fu Panda, Pablo Sandoval!

I have to admit, I fanboyed a bit at the experience of meeting one of my favorite baseball players. He was kind enough to pose for a picture with me, and one with the kids. Pablo even signed an autograph for Ryan.

Pablo was so gracious despite having spent six hours on a plane. He didn’t have to talk to anyone, and he didn’t have to pick up his own bags. Nor did he have to pose for pictures with random people in the airport, but he did. This was definitely not one of those moments they talk about when they say “don’t meet your heroes.”

We managed to make it out of the city without too much delay and found ourselves back home in the early evening. Despite the exciting journey, coming home was a relief, and as always, it’s nice to get back to your own bed.

New Year’s Cruise Day 7 – Havana, Part II

January 6, 2019

We had an 8:30 a.m. excursion scheduled via the cruise line, but we decided that getting up at 7:00 was not something we wanted to do, so we skipped it. We took our time getting up and about and got off the ship around 10:00.

The excursion was supposed to visit the old Spanish fort and the statue of Christ overlooking the harbor. While we wanted to see them, we also wanted to do some more exploring of the city. We figured we’d hire a cab and visit what we wanted without having to deal with a group.

We stepped out of the cruise terminal and quickly found a cab – a convertible pink 1949 Pontiac (with its original engine!) At the wheel was Yudiel, accompanied by his girlfriend “Day,” who acted as a translator. We managed to pack the four of us inside the car with Yudiel and Day. $40 would get us a one-hour tour of the city.

Our first stop was the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro – the Spanish fortress overlooking the entrance to Havana Bay. The fortress was built in 1589 and was named for the three biblical magi. The morro had been one of the planned stops on the original tour. We stood on the edge of the promontory where the fortress had been built and were greeted with panoramic views of the entrance to the harbor and of old Havana. The boys wanted to explore inside the fortress, so I took them in. The fortress was similar to Castillo San Cristobal in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The boys got a big kick out of exploring the fortress’s rooms and climbing the ramps leading to the upper levels, calling it “The Great Wall of China” (what?)

Yudiel took a few pictures of us seated in his car, and even pretended to steal my camera. We were finding Yudiel and Day to be more personable than Ragith the night before. We loaded back up and headed for our next stop.

We passed through a Cuban military training facility and by an exhibit on the “October Crisis,” known as the Cuban Missile Crisis to Americans. Day mentioned the piece of an airplane that “Fidel shot down.” I would have liked to stop at the exhibit, but the guard would not allow Yudiel to park his cab there. I think seeing the Cuban perspective would have been interesting, since American schools only tell the details from our point of view.

We reached the top of a hill directly across from a house that formerly belonged to Che Guevara. On the hill was the 80-foot-tall statue of Christ. The 320-ton statue was made from marble from Italy that had been blessed by Pope Pius XII. From its spot on La Cabaña hill, the statue can be seen from all over Havana. The Havana Christ’s eyes are even sculpted empty so as to give the illusion that the statue is looking at the viewer from wherever they are.

While looking at the statue, Yudiel asked me if knew the difference between the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro and the Cuban statue. Yudiel said Rio’s Christ looks over the city with his arms outstretched, welcoming the world to Brazil. Yudiel then pointed out that Cuba’s Christ has his right hand holding two fingers up by his chin, and his left hand in front of his chest, depicting Christ holding a Cuban cigar in his right hand and a mojito in his left.

We hopped back in the car and started driving back toward Old Havana. Alicia told Yudiel that we wanted to see the “real” Cuba. One of the things we love to do when traveling is to get off the typical tourist path and see the places where only the locals go. Yudiel was happy to oblige. We turned away from the city and into a residential area. We entered an housing complex consisting of several multi-story buildings that would have looked more at home in Moscow than in the Caribbean. We stopped at a lunch counter called “La Orquidea” – The Orchid. For the equivalent of $16 US we got two pizzas and four Cuban sandwiches. These “real” Cuban sandwiches were made on round rolls and topped with ham, bacon, cheese, and ketchup. I washed it down with a can of Cristal beer, Cuba’s national beer. The boys enjoyed their sandwiches and the pizza, and even shared their lunch with some of the local cats who had come to watch us eat.

After lunch, we headed back toward the port to conclude our tour. This is when things took an interesting turn. Alicia asked where we could buy some cigars. Day got excited and asked, “You want cigars?” Of course we did. How could we go to Cuba and not acquire some Cuban cigars? Day told Alicia to wait a minute because she “knows a guy.” Day made a quick phone call. Yudiel made a turn over some railroad tracks and entered a part of Havana that looked like tourists did not go to. The streets were narrow and rough; they were lined with multi-story apartments built in the early 20th Century in neo-Classical styles. We passed groups of children playing in the streets, and old men sitting on stoops followed our car with their eyes as we passed. You could tell that bright pink Pontiacs were not a common sight in these parts.

Yudiel made several turns through the streets until we stopped in front of a building with “106” above the door. Yudiel told us we were there and to hop out.

I began thinking this is how people buy drugs back home. I continued thinking and thought, this is how American tourists get kidnapped in Cuba.

As we stepped out of the car, the front door of the building opened. An older American couple stepped out. I heard the man, who was wearing dark sunglasses and a large Panama hat, tell his wife, “I guess this is where everyone comes for cigars.”

I stepped through the door, which was so narrow that the brim of my hat scraped the edges. Day told us to go to the second floor and go through the open door. We climbed the narrow stairs and found an open door, where a man motioned for us to come in. We stepped inside to find … a living room?! This is definitely not on the normal cruise ship tour. A bald man with a gold tooth, who bore a striking resemblance to Pitbull, pointed at the couch and told me to sit down. If we were going to be murdered, this is when it would happen. The boys didn’t care about what was happening, they saw a Christmas tree with toys under it. On the far end of the living room, I saw a small table with a pile of cigar boxes perched on top.

Why did this man have a large stash of cigars in his living room? Day told us that people who work in cigar factories are given a box each week to take home. Often, additional cigars are “acquired” from the factory with or without permission. The workers then sell the cigars to make ends meet after their government rations run out. Pitbull was one of these workers; we didn’t ask where they came from and he didn’t tell. We made a selection and worked a deal; the kids tried to work Pitbull’s children’s new scooter into the deal.

We asked Day why we went to Pitbull for cigars. She said they and Pitbull have an arrangement. When people need a taxi, Pitbull calls Yudiel. When one of Yudiel’s fares wants cigars, they go to Pitbull.

Our one-hour trip had turned into a four-hour trip thanks to Yudiel and Day. We had a lot of fun, so we hooked them up with a generous tip. They were especially grateful since they would only see a small portion of the $40 fare due to not owning the car. Anything over the original fare was theirs to keep. Alicia and Day even became Facebook friends so we could recommend them to anyone going to Havana.

Yudiel and Day dropped us off at the San Jose market where I got to see my “friends” again. We picked up some last-minute souvenirs before heading back to the ship.

We rode back to the ship on “CoCos.” CoCos are little taxis that look like a motor scooter and golf cart hooked up at a drunken party. In reality, they’re 100 percent Cuban creativity, and totally safe. CoCos have three wheels, they’re top heavy, and passengers sit on top of the gas tank. What could go wrong? Alex loved the ride in the CoCo. It was his request, after all. Ryan, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to get out. We survived the half-mile ride back to the ship and got on board.

We took the boys for a quick swim and gelato. Then we stood on deck and watched Havana pass as we said goodbye to Cuba. As we sailed out of the bay, we could hear people shouting ¡Cuba Libre! – “Free Cuba!” – a toast to the island that originated during the Cuban War of Independence. Either they really liked their visit or they were thirsty for a rum and Coke.

As we steamed toward Miami, we spent the night packing our suitcases for home. Our journey was coming to an end.

In the media Communist countries always seem to be portrayed as these places where the people trudge about without emotion, passing a gray landscape of ugly cities where the concept of fun is nonexistent. Cuba was in no way like that. I’m not going to comment on political philosophies, but what I saw in our two days in Havana was a vibrant city with a population full of life. The people have taken cultural ideas from their past and from around the world and made it their own. They possess a can-do spirit that lets them overcome political and economic limitations to make things just work. The people we met look forward to the future when they can share their home with the world with no limitations, yet are proud of what they are now. I can’t wait to visit again.

¡Cuba libre!

New Year’s Cruise Day 6 – Havana Part I

January 5, 2019 – Havana, Cuba

Today was the main event, so to speak, of the cruise. Day one of two in Havana. Previous guest meetings on the ship had prepared us for the day, which would start off with a trip through Cuban Immigration and Customs. Typically when a ship calls in a port, you just get off the ship and start walking around, no worrying about passports or visa stamps or anything like that.

Cuba was a different beast. The cruise director had talked to us about filling out our Cuban visas, and the need to have them done perfectly. And at $75 per person, if you make a mistake you have to buy another one.

As a requirement from the US government, we were required to participate in a “people to people” shore excursion in order to legally visit Cuba. For a long time Cuba was off limits to American visitors, but in recent years the restrictions have loosened. Americans are now able to visit Cuba for purposes of interacting with Cuban people and culture. Because of this restriction, if you weren’t on an excursion you could not get off the ship if you were an American citizen. Fortunately, two excursions (one for each day) were included with the cruise.

We met in the ship’s theater to gather into our groups for our excursions. As soon as Cuban officials cleared us to get off the ship we were herded like cattle to the gangway and the line for immigration. While in line, many people tried to push forward as if it was somehow going to get them into Cuba sooner. In actuality, it just slowed the line down.

Surprisingly the line to get through immigration was not very long. I was expecting a Kafkaesque queue with many superfluous hoops to jump through for what would eventually be a simple task. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised that all we needed to do to satisfy immigration was present our visas, smile for a picture, and get our passports stamped. After getting our passports back from the immigration officer, we headed for the customs line where we passed through a metal detector and put our bags through an x-ray machine.

Unfortunately, the US-led embargo has resulted in a bit of tit-for-tat. If the US does not want people spending their American money in Cuba, Cuba has decided that they don’t want it. In order to buy anything in Cuba, we had to exchange our US dollars for Cuban Convertible Pesos – “CUCs.” As ordered by the Cuban government, CUCs are exchanged at 1 to 1 for US dollars, British pounds, Canadian dollars, and Euros. But in another act of revenge for the US embargo, exchanges on US dollars are subject to a 13 percent fee. So in actually you get 0.87 CUCs to one dollar. Mom took Alicia’s advice and bought Canadian dollars from her bank before leaving. We, on the other hand, didn’t have time to get an order from our bank.

Oh, and once you exchange your dollars you don’t get them back. Spend your CUCs or be stuck with them forever.

We got on our bus for the tour. As we waited we could see old American cars, something Cuba is famous for, passing by on the street outside the cruise terminal. We were greeted by our tour guide Yakarta (named after a city in Asia) and we headed into town.

Our bus drove through streets full of opposites. We passed decrepit buildings from the early 20th Century in neo-classical and art deco styles. Occasionally we would see one of these buildings in renovated condition. Interspersed with these old styles, we also saw buildings that were were obviously inspired by the Soviets. Small motorcycles zipped around us, and traffic was filled with old Ladas, newer Hyundais, and the ubiquitous 1950s-era American cars (which I’ll touch on later).

We stopped in the Murelando neighborhood, home to a community art center called “The Tanque.” The Tanque was at one time a large concrete water tank, but has been turned into a space for local artists to work. We watched one artist make posters with handmade ink stamps, one guy was making jewelry out of coconut shells, others were doing more traditional things like painting. We sat and enjoyed a drink while listening to a band that played music that was a fusion of Latin sounds and rock, but distinctly Cuban.

We left Murelando and headed for the Legendario rum factory. While on the way, Yakarta talked about Cuba being the birthplace of rum and praised Cuban rums as the best in the world. In actuality, a rum-like drink was distilled in Cyprus in the 1300s, and the first rum made fro molasses was made in Barbados in the 1600s. In addition to praise of rum, Yakarta talked about the greatness of Cuba. Yakarta said Cuba has very crime, very little poverty, and no violence. Yakarta also made the claim that Cuban doctors (who she said make less than auto mechanics) have developed cures for cancer and diabetes, but cannot share their discoveries with the world because of the US embargo. While I don’t know the truth of those statements, she came off as a mouthpiece for the government, and was likely only telling us things they wanted us to hear.

Yakarta told us about the history of rum in Cuba while at the factory. I would love to tell you more, but I didn’t listen. I was distracted by coffee and cigars. I watched the barista in the rum factory make a flaming Cuban coffee. Flaming coffee is made by adding chocolate liqueur to espresso. The liqueur is then set alight in a small pot. The entire flaming concoction is then poured into a coffee mug from the height of about two feet, making a wonderful display of a flame being poured into a cup.

As I exited the rum factory, I was accosted by several guys (more “friends”) trying to sell me cigars for half the price of the store inside the factory. They told me to check the “other” shop through a door on the bottom floor of the factory. I went toward the door, but only saw an alley. Not today. Not today. I got back on the bus and found out the “cigars” the guys were peddling were likely stolen. Alicia told me an employee from inside the factory confronted the men about stealing cigars from the store. The men fled, but not before tossing their cigars to another person standing by.

The bus carried us on to the Plaza de la Revolución, site of many of Fidel Castro’s speeches to the Cuban people and even masses celebrated by the Pope. One one side of the plaza were two government buildings with steel sculptures of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos with quotes from each. “Hasta la victoria siempre” – “To victory, always” from Che, and “Vas bien, Fidel” – “You’re doing fine, Fidel” from Cienfuegos. Towering over the opposite side of the plaza was the 358-foot-tall José Martí Memorial. Martí is Cuba’s national hero and there are references to him all over Havana.

After a few minutes at the plaza, we re-boarded the bus and rode toward the Malecón, the 5-mile-long sea wall along the north side of Havana. The Malecón was lined with many old and new hotels, and buildings yet to be repaired after Hurricane Irma in 2017. We passed the US Embassy, surrounded by its wrought iron fence, and directly across from a plaza containing the José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform and the “Wall of Flags.” As we passed, Yakarta conveniently left out the word “Anti-Imperialist” when referring to the plaza. She also didn’t say anything about the reason for the Wall of Flags. I will though.

The plaza, which was built in 2000 directly across from the US Embassy, has been the site of many protests against the US government. The first protest was over the custody of Elián González, the 6-year-old boy who was taken from Cuba by his mother and whose family in the US refused to return to his father in Cuba. Since then, the plaza has been used for other protests and the stage that has been used for concerts. The Wall of Flags was placed in the plaza in 2006 as a sign of protest against an electronic message board that had been built on top of the US embassy. The group of 138 now-rusting flag poles and black flags with white stars (which were not flying today) were put up a month after the message board was installed and are just high enough to block the public’s view of the board when standing in front of the stage.

As we passed the far end of the plaza, Yakarta pointed out a statue of Martí which depicted him shielding a child with his body and arms while pointing in the direction of the US embassy. Yakarta told us Martí was protecting the child from invading “imperialists.”

We continued into downtown Havana and passed the former capitol building. The capitol was built between 1926 and 1929 and formerly housed Cuba’s congress until the revolution in 1959. The capitol has a similar appearance to the US capitol, but was not built as a replica despite being built by an American construction company. After the revolution, Cuba’s congress was disbanded and the building fell into disrepair before being turned into a museum. The building is currently being restored to be used again by the Cuban National Assembly.

A block away from the capitol, the bus stopped in Havana’s Central Park for a break. We wandered around and found a shop just off the park that sold Cuban sandwiches. We grabbed a couple for the road (and to satisfy two hungry boys) and realized we were late for the bus. We ran back and made it just in time.

The bus then took us to the San Jose Artisans’ Market, another of our people-to-people and Cuban culture stops. The market was filled with kiosks with artists selling items ranging from paintings, to t-shirts, to handmade wooden cigar boxes. Once again I met many “friends” who wanted to find me exactly what I was looking for (especially cigars).

We returned to the cruise terminal and made our way back onto the ship. We grabbed a quick dinner, dropped the kids off at the kids’ club, and headed back out to explore the city some more.

Just outside the terminal we picked up our taxi for the night, a bright pink 1952 Chevrolet convertible (powered by a Hyundai diesel engine) driven by Ragith (pronounced “Rah-heeth”). Ragith was in his 20s, had spiky hair, and stylish clothing; he would have looked just as at home in Miami as he was in Havana. Ragith drove us around the city to some of the places we had seen during our bus tour. The only difference was we could spend more time at them, and choose where we got to go.

We stopped at the Plaza de la Revolución where the sculptures of Guevara and Cienfuegos were aglow with back-lighting. Floodlights illuminated the Martí memorial, while soldiers stood guard at its base. I used a pedestrian under-crossing below the Avenida Paseo to get a closer look at the memorial. As I walked past the guard shack, I got some curious glances from the soldiers watching over the entrance.

Ragith then took us through some of the neighborhoods where tourists don’t often go. We passed the enormous gate of the Colón cemetery, Havana’s largest cemetery, covering more than 122 acres and holding about 800,000 graves.

We headed down the Malecón, where waves were crashing over the top of the sea wall and onto the sidewalk. We passed a plaza below the Hotel Nacional (which was mentioned in “The Godfather II”) where there looked to be a large party going on. Hundreds of young Cubans gathered with loud music for what was likely a typical Saturday night.

We ended our nocturnal tour at St. Francis of Assisi Plaza across from the cruise terminal. What a great time, and there was still another day to explore!