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Uncle Markie out and about.

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Mon
27
Mar '17

Trip Report: Cuban Adventure, Last Post (Honest!)

Totally forgot about this video clip of driving in Havana that I took – enjoy!

Well, that’s it (finally) for my Cuban Adventure.

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Fri
24
Mar '17

Trip Report: Cuban Adventure, Architecture

The final installment of Cuba! Just to give you an idea, this starts with one of the most appropriate traffic bollards for an old colonial city, followed by a chat about the wastefulness of taxpayer dollars for large one-use stadiums, followed by some random shots of old buildings in Old Havana.

Off to the bollards we go. Bollards?

bollard is a sturdy, short, vertical post. Although it originally described a post on a ship or quay used principally for mooring boats, the word is now used to describe posts installed to control road traffic and posts designed to prevent ram raiding and car ramming attacks.

Thanks Wikipedia!

These are some of the most creative bollards I’ve seen (though the phallic ones in Amsterdam are cute):

Oh, and in the background, was Batista’s private rail car (and Gema and Alain to the right):

Sadly, I can’t find out much about its history, and why it’s on a back alley.

But now onto useless municipal/state financed sports arenas…China is tightlipped about the “Birds Nest” and other huge stadiums (at least they have the population!), and Greece is still trying to deal with their Olympic stadium complex – there are countless other examples (guessing Sochi would be among them). These are a couple of “drive by” shots of the stadium in Havana that hasn’t been used since the Pan America Games in 1991.

I did notice that they reused the night lighting!

But it seats 50,000 people, and even though it was renovated in 2008 with artificial turf, according to Wikipedia: “It served as the site of an episode of the American version of Top Gear in 2016. The episode showed the stadium in disrepair and mostly abandoned.” The renovation was a “last ditch” effort to make it useful.

Oddly enough, the Times of India has a great ARTICLE that you can scroll through (rather than “click-bait” through).

And now, just some random shots of old pretty buildings in Old Havana:

And I’m not sure why there is a museum about my birthday, but….

Turns out it is The Second Occupation of Cuba. A fascinating bit of Cuba-US relations.

And with that, I’ll sign off the “Cuba Adventure” reports, and go to bed. I need to starting thinking about packing for Japan.

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Thu
23
Mar '17

Trip Report: Cuban Adventure, Cars!

Before I started this trip, everybody said, “Take pictures of all the cool cars!”

And I did – for the first couple of days, and then I ran out of 1’s and 0’s and had to move some phone images to the laptop. My joke is that every FOURTH car is an old American car, every THIRD car is an old Soviet car (mostly Ladas). The rest are trucks or more modern cars.

Here are some of the category THREE and FOUR:

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Thu
23
Mar '17

Trip Report: Cuban Adventure, Cars!

Before I started this trip, everybody said, “Take pictures of all the cool cars!”

And I did – for the first couple of days, and then I ran out of 1’s and 0’s and had to move some phone images to the laptop. My joke is that every FOURTH car is an old American car, every THIRD car is an old Soviet car (mostly Ladas). The rest are trucks or more modern cars.

Here are some of the category THREE and FOUR:

Think I might have maxed out the number of pictures I can have in a post – luckily, I culled a couple and hopefully this will post!

But please notice – either in the cities or in the countryside, old cars in various stages of restoration are everyday drivers.

Tomorrow, architecture!

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Wed
22
Mar '17

Trip Report: Cuban Adventure, The People

This post is basically just random photos of people in Cuba to give you a feel for our visit to Cuba.

So, that’s it for today – just a bunch of random people pictures. Stay tuned for a long post of automobile pictures and a short architectural post.

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Mon
20
Mar '17

Trip Report: Cuban Adventure, Headed Home

And, once again, I hand the floor over to Rache:

The days of ending an adventure are a mixture of sadness and goodbyes with the anticipation of getting home and comfortable back in the routine. I know Li’l Miss loves the routine time. I’m excited to see her.

Once again, I was the first to arise. I have become accustomed being the one to rid the kitchen of the morning lizards. Thankfully, just turning on the lights takes care of most the evictions. And even more thankfully, my bravery (meaning lack thereof) was not tested with a defiant one.

Tekita once again provided a hearty breakfast. What made this morning unique was the house bustling with people. Alain’s father arrived with some groceries. His mother arrived from a different direction. I was relieved to see her because she had been having back pain issues. Alain’s friends arrived. And contractors arrived. They were doing work beyond the patio to the area of the backyard where the banana trees grow.

Breakfast was also unique in that there was a little ceremony in the dining room. You see, Alain and the others are believers in an Afro-Cuban religion [Markie note: Santeria]. I don’t know a lot about it, but it came from Africa and their deities were given Christian names (like Saint Michael) in the 17th century as a way to avoid being punished by the slave owners. When the owners saw the slaves praising the names of Christian saints, they assumed that the slaves had embraced Christianity. Not so. The slaves gave the deities Christian names to avoid beatings and whippings. Smart, those slaves. Anyway, while Markie and I were at the table dining on scrambled eggs, a mat was put down next to Markie by the shrine, a visitor laid face down on it and Alain did some sort of ritual. It was short but powerful. Alain is somewhat of an authority on the Afro-Cuban religion and was to speak at the conference in New York City last year except his visa was denied by the US Embassy in Havana. Only his partner Luis was allowed to attend, where I met him and attended some of the sessions at the conference. As Alain Ramirez. I’m so glad I kept that name tag because Alain was visibly moved when I handed him the lanyard a few days before. 

Gema arrived early enough to take me for a little walk to the sea. Markie opted to pack (which I had already done). The Alamar neighborhood was built right at the beginning of Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union. All the houses are the same design although each occupant makes their individual homes all unique so Alain’s neighborhood does not seem monotonous. I must say his home is among the tidiest and maintained. There are also massive apartment buildings (again, Soviet era) that are not maintained on the exterior. Alamar is on the east side of Havana, has a population of about 200,000 and has exactly two unreliable Wi-Fi hotspots in public parks. That’s why you didn’t hear from me on this trip.

Anyway, as we walked towards the sea, Gema’s dad drove around the corner. She was happy to see her dad, who has Parkinson’s and I must say his driving was much steadier than his physical condition. I’ve met that man twice and he has a constant smile. Even tho’ they live in the city, they raise goats, chickens, turtles, and I’m not sure what else. When I was first at their house, a farmer was picking up some young animals to take to a farm. A good little side business I would imagine. 

Markie here:

Too bad I didn’t get the camera out sooner, all I caught were the last two goats (out of four) to go into the trunk of a farmer’s car along with a bag of chickens and a bag of pheasants – all live, and all headed to be fattened up on another families’ farm. Surreal to see this in a suburban neighborhood.

Back to Rache:

OK, so finally we get to the sea. It’s not a beach, because it’s all jagged rocks. Leave it to the Soviets to build a beach front with no sand. The decayed remnants of two concessions booths and an entrance to a bomb shelter were all that is visible. Gema was saying that the shelter, now sealed off, was an entire city with huge kitchens and even a movie theater. The Soviets built Alamar for Russians and they were going to protect them from the US.  Anyway, the views are beautiful, the water very clear, and the air fresh. No pollution from car fumes at all. My flip flops were not sturdy enough and they slipped on the uneven, jagged rocks where I have a little scrape (bled a bit) on my foot to remind me of my time at a Soviet beach. 

Gema and I returned home. I quickly showered and soon we were off. Now some of you know that I pack school supplies (and toys) and try to find schools and it’s that are needy. I had informed Alain of my practice and he contacted a local school director who said that donations had to be handled through the Ministry of Education. We had made plans to drop off the supplies at the ministry on the way to the airport. But when I serendipitously found Escuela Primaria José Marti in Old Havana, Alain worked magic on the director and she was more than happy to not involve the ministry. So back to Old Havana and back to “my school.” We went up a flight of stairs to the principal’s office. It was stifling hot and I’m glad I had my wash cloth used as a sweat dauber. I unpacked an overflowing Trader Joe’s bag full of supplies and she was very happy. The director informed Gema that some schools have “Spanish godfathers” but here in the poor area of Havana, there are no such things. Anyway, I have offered to become ‘The Godfather of Escuela Primario José Marti.’ [Since being home, the school director and I have been in email contact. I may be hitting you up for school supplies one of these days.] Nothing would make me happier than to help support kids in poverty. And to have visited the school and met with the director makes it even more personal. I am still filled with so much emotion. The director took my email address (she couldn’t remember her address since she rarely uses it) and will write me. Gema informed her that I have access to Google Translate. And we left. In my wildest imagination, I never came up with a scenario like this where I actually have the opportunity to “adopt” a school. This was the most emotional part of the trip for me.

Then it was off to the airport (José Marti International —- that guy is a major figure in Cuban revolutionary history). At the curb, we started to say our goodbyes when all of a sudden Gema burst into sobbing tears, having a difficult time saying ‘goodbyes.’ And I felt the same but held it together a bit more than she did. In such a short time, we had developed such a strong, emotional connection and we didn’t want it to end. Alain, Gema, Markie, and I all embraced and wiped tears. And then Markie and I left to enter the terminal. I turned back two or three times to get an additional goodbye wave in but that act just sort of prolonged the goodbye tears.

You guys, this was one hell of an adventure. Once again, the love, joy, and compassion of the Cuban people were on constant display. The warmth of the people is not allowed to be shared with us here in America. If the damn governments of both the U.S. and Cuba would get out of the way so people to people diplomacy would kick in, I think it would be a wonderful opportunity for Cuba to once and forever be free from the burden of foreign influence that has plagued this island since 1492. 

Markie here:

When the check-in counter finally opens (Alaska site says arrive 4 hours before, but the counter doesn’t open until 3.5 hours before, oddly, like our outbound flight) I quickly weigh our bags, Rache’s now empty of school materials, much of with he’d packed in a spare duffel bag I gave him at the beginning, but it’s still telling of how we travel.

My checked bag (in kilograms):

Rache’s checked bag (in kilograms):

And for some reason, we weren’t able to carry on “White Weapons”. Weapons white guys use? Or “Tough Objects”. Splain it Ricky (a nod to Ricky Ricardo, the legendary Cuban showman married to Lucille Ball.

While there is a lounge at the airport, the reviews I’ve read on The Points Guy, don’t have terribly nice things to say about it. We hung out in the terminal, had a ham and cheese, a couple of Cuba Libre (second one on the house because of an ass grabbing incident that for once, didn’t involve us).

Our plane arrives, the cleaners and security arrive, we eventually board:

Nope, there are no sky bridges at the airport.

One of the ways I talked Rache into joining me at the last minute on this trip (10 days before) is that I offered to give him some of my Gold Upgrades so he could sit up front with me (though he sleeps so easily on long plane flights it might not have made a difference). Don’t we look comfortable?

And soon, the food and booze start flying….

The full menu:

I went for the chicken…

Got through Immigration and Customs in Los Angeles with no problems even with both of us having Cuban Booze and Cigars.

Caught a couple of more cocktails in the Alaska Lounge in LA before our flight home which was schedule to arrive at 2:30am, putting us back at the house around 3:30 – where we both had a nightcap before bed to shake off the effects of flying all day.

Rache was gone by the time I was up, having swapped shifts with Jimmie so I didn’t have to be at the shop until 1:30pm – actually got a full night’s sleep!

There will be a couple of more Cuban Adventure posts with stuff that didn’t get enough attention – people, cars, architecture.

Until then…

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Sun
19
Mar '17

Trip Report: Cuban Adventure, Part 4

Take it away Rache (I’ll just add pictures!):

Markie’s and my last full day in Cuba was certainly filled with wonderful experiences. This entire trip has been just one amazing experience after another. 

After another amazing breakfast, were sped off in Frank’s new sedan. Smaller than the big old cars, it’s certainly more reliable. And Frank is a friendly, masterful driver. 

Our first stop was at the Museum of the Revolution. It’s in the former presidential palace. Batista was the last resident prior to the Revolution. I had been here in 2015 with the “Christmas Quintet.” We ambled along and read some of the descriptions. This time, Gema secured a guide. Alina only spoke Spanish, but Gema translated. I must tell you, Gema gets more confident and competent each day. She could easily communicate very well if and when she travels to the US. Anyway, I certainly came away with a much better understanding of the history after our tour. And we spent some time out back where Granma is housed, along with several very important military objects that are just out in the open. Including the one and only remaining plane called “Marina.” Also included was the type of missile that shot down the US spy plane in October 1962 and the remains of the fuselage of the spy plane. There is an eternal flame that honors Cuba’s “New Patriots.” It was lit by Fidel on April 19, 1989.  You know, it’s pretty interesting seeing international perspectives from different eyes. Again, it seems to me that governments are more the problem than the solutions in so many instances.

After the museum, we took a walking tour. Our first destination was the Capitolio. It’s a small replica of our Capitol in D.C. It was begun way before the revolution and it’s being completed now. The Cuban parliament will move there upon completion.

Next was a brief walk by of Central Park. Think of it as a plaza but surrounded by streets instead of buildings. It’s small and is famous for guys arguing about baseball (and other topics) during the day and at night is a place for hooking up with certain people of pleasure. A “Pay to Play” sort of deal. You can use your imagination to fill in the details.

We were running out of fuel rapidly by the time we reached the cathedral so we had a bit of a refreshment outside overlooking the house of worship. Markie and I had a daiquiri while Gema and Alain each opted for colas. There was even live music.

After a brief “look-see” in the cathedral…

Oh, we stepped into the bar Floridita, home of the daiquiri and made famous by Hemingway. The place was crazy busy so we walked in and out.

As we were hoofing our way on the narrow streets of Old Havana towards our final destination in the city when a most serendipitous event occurred. We walked past an elementary school just as the kids were readying to eat lunch. The door was open and I gazed in, looking at the uniformly uniformed students and admiring the teachers. Gema asked the person at the front door if we could see. “Yes, but not photos.”  Esquela Primaria José Marti is my kind of school. It serves kids from very poor families from the neighborhood. I was able to view the center hallway and then the cafeteria. The cook was washing the metal trays before the next group of kids entered. You know, school energy everywhere is similar.

So, as Markie, Gema, and I were looking around, Alain was asking if they took donations of supplies. I brought a whole bunch of things, from playground balls to Fiskar scissors, pencils, colored, pencils, crayons, sharpeners and I don’t know what all else. Before our arrival, Gema had inquired at a school near where she lives if they could accept donations. They said they would have to go through the Ministry of Education. Well, at José Marti, they were eager to bypass that step. So today, on our way to the airport, we’re going to briefly stop back at the school and drop off the supplies. And in a gesture typical of folks in poverty (at least what I’ve observed), the school is going to share the supplies with another school that is close by. To me, dealing directly with a school is so much better than going through some damn bureaucracy. 

After that brief stop, we continued without interruption to the Havana Club Rum Museum. We arrived with about 15 minutes before the English language tour so we were able to sit for a quick Cuba Libre (rum and coke). The tour was about 35 minutes and was very informative. And of course, a sample of 7-year old rum was waiting for us at the conclusion of the tour. 

Then it was back to the house for lunch. Don’t kid yourselves, it was a feast. Yucca, chicken, red beans and rice (a change from the usual black beans), and salad filled the table. So tasty. I used to say that “Cuban food” and “food in Cuba” are two different things. Finding home cooked meals like this in Cuba has increased my appreciation of “Cuban food in Cuba” to near god-like status. So good.

After a brief pause, we walked over to a busier boulevard and hailed a cab. We were off to the beach I had visited in December 2015. We also experienced a bit of relativity. First of all, it was a ‘red flag’ day so no swimming.  The wind was pretty strong. I was basking in the warmth of the water and air while Alain and Gema were huddled with towels around them. They had no intention of dipping their toes in the ‘freezing’ water. They endured and I savored until Markie broke the tie and opted to go back home. I can never get enough beach time. What seemed chilly for Alain and Gema seemed very warm to me. 

We had lots of time to relax before a meal of leftovers and Alain’s insanely delicious malanga fries. Those things are addictive, especially dipped in delicious Cuban honey. Oh man.

This is a most welcoming house. Alain’s friends arrive and seem a part of the family. I feel beyond honored that their casa and hearts opened themselves to Markie and me. This has truly been a blessing that I feel lucky to have experienced. 

Markie here:

This was an incredible bit of luck to find as generous a host at Alain and his extended family. Tomorrow morning will be our last chance to explore before heading home in the afternoon.

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Sat
18
Mar '17

Trip Report: Cuban Adventure, Part 3

Through the process of writing, editing Rach’s comments, add pictures, I’m still blown away by the experience of our days in Cuba. Reminds to write another thank you note to our host and extended family.

Back to Rache:

After another hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, mango juice, fresh papaya, cheese and ham, our driver Frank was ready for us to begin our day. Gema had arranged for someone to cover her work, so she was able to join us.

Our first stop was the Muséo Hemingway. This was house he lived in. While we couldn’t go in since it has remained how he left it, there were several doors and windows open with easy viewing of the different rooms. That man loved his books and mounted animal heads.

Mark here: And even Poppa’s Pooper…

If you look closely you can even see what appears to be weight measurement on the wall:

Back to Rache:

We were also able to ascend the tower. The first floor was where his sick cats would be treated, the second floor was where he wrote and the third floor was sort of an observation level where Papa could view his beautiful La Habana. This was a lovely mansion that has been preserved in its pre-revolutionary grandeur. 

The grounds also had a cemetery for his dogs – Black, Negrita, Linda, and Neron.  Where the tennis court once stood now stands Hemingway’s fishing boat, the Pilar, which was registered out of Key West. It was named after a secret lover’s nickname. The Pilar is significantly more substantial than that of the Old Man and the Sea.

We traveled through a very seedy area of town (San Miguel, wouldn’t you know) to get to Revolution Square.  The square noted for its giant tower honoring José Marti and of the huge likenesses of Ché and Camilo

Gema, Alain, and I opted to go to the top of the tower while Markie was happy taking photos of classic cars with Frank joining him. The top of the tower gave us perfect views of the entire city and beyond. You know, from a distance, poverty doesn’t seem to exist. Maybe it’s good to get up close and personal once in a while. Regardless, there is definitely beauty amongst the hovels.

Markie here:

By this point in the trip, my right knee was starting to get a little cranky, and the thought of all those steps made me winch. And I am an old car fan (as is our driver Frank). I’ve just put one group picture in as at some point there will be an entire car post:

Back to Rache:

Next we made a brief stop at John Lennon Square. Markie had an opportunity to pose with the Beattle. Unlike when I was last here, there wasn’t a guy there offering to ‘rent’ out glasses to adorn John’s face. There was an official in uniform who provided glasses at no charge. The regime has its advantages. I also noted the restaurant where Frank, Ron, Michael and I had a delightful lunch. 

Our tour of the city progressed to University of Havana where Gema attends. It is so beautiful with classic architecture and cute young students. The place feels like any other university I’ve visited (or attended) and it’s during these visits that I wish I could live my college years again. I love the energy these academic palaces emit. Powerful places, these are. 

We had worked up an appetite so off we were to sample paladar food. Fonda La Paila is about a block from Habana Libre (formerly the Hilton) and about a light year away from the quality of its food and atmosphere. This place just rocks. It’s open air, covered of course, and is a place that begs to be returned to again and again. It’s a place where chickens peck around your feet before the food arrives and where cats beg when lunch is served. OMG!  The food was superb. And of course, in true Cuban fashion, the portions were huge. Along with pork and onions were salad, Moros y Cristianos, and boiled sweet potatoes. Along with a couple Cuba Libre (Rum and Cola). This place rocked. For the five of us, the total was 56 CUC, less than in the touristy valley the day before. This is what Cuba is all about. Oh, and it was where I taught Gema and Alain about the concept of “doggie bags.” The waiter provided two plastic bags for the leftovers.

Our first stop in Old Havana was thwarted by Women’s Day. The Rum Museum was closed for the holiday so we will have to return. It may be a good thing as a cruise ship had arrived and there were swarms of tourists around. 

Mark here:

Rache forgot to mention that while the museum was not open, the bar attached to the museum was open (and we should have stayed for a drink and listened to the music:

Back to Rache:

We were successful afterwards however. We ascended to the Camera Obscura where we were able to see a 360º view of the city complete with a humorous presentation in Spanish and English. I’d recommend this rather obscure site.

By now the time was 4:00 PM and Gema had an event to attend in an hour. We were all dragging a bit so we came home to reboot and relax. 

Once home, Alain, a friend, Markie and I watched the critically acclaimed movie “Viva.” It was filmed in Cuba but it was not shown here. It brought a tear to Markie’s and my eye.

During the time without Gema, there was a bit of confusion. What Markie and I took to mean that dinner would be served after our final visit, it was actually served an hour before the visit. So much for a nap. I must tell you, while the food at restaurants have been excellent, Tekita knocks food out of the park. She is just amazing. And she runs a mean ship as well. When Alain came to the table as Markie and I were finishing our breakfast this morning, she informed Alain that she wouldn’t cook breakfast for him because he was getting too fat. That I could be as fat as Alain. Regardless, he didn’t get breakfast. It was Women’s Day after all. Anyway, if she ends up missing from Cuba when our plane departs, her room is waiting for me back at my casa by the mar. 

Mark here:

I have to add a most amusing picture – it is us giving Alain’s partner Luis’ mother a ride back to her apartment block – on Alain’s lap!

Back to Rache:

Our final adventure of the day came at 8 PM when Frank arrived and drove us to Moro Castle. Prior to the nightly ceremony, we had time to visit the Ché Museum and we actually got to step into his office. Very cool. One interesting note is that museums are rather relaxed in Cuba. For instance, there are some postcards Ché wrote from Africa. And they are just tacked on a board where folks can actually touch them — like I did.

The nightly ceremony began soon, leading to the firing of the canon at 9 PM. This  ritual goes back to early colonial time when the canon signaled that everyone should be within the castle walls so that pirates wouldn’t kill them. The ceremony was very nice. Gema explained what was happening while the colonial soldiers were drumming and marching by prior to the BOOM! The event was well attended — there was a cruise ship in town after all. This was a sweet event and was on my list of things to do. 

After the event, the crowd leisurely dispersed. As we drove home, we passed Ché’s home (it was dark) and passed through the neighborhood of Casablanca. It was a nice area.

Once home, I joined Markie in a nightly cocktail before retiring to my best night’s sleep here yet. I am reminded of the phrase, “This will make you feel better as you’re getting better.” Someone famous said that. 

Mark here:

As you can well guess, I had more than one nightly cocktail.

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Thu
16
Mar '17

Trip Report: Cuban Adventure, Part 2

One of the really nice things about travelling with Rache is the difference in our time zones. He’s the early riser, I’m the night owl. Needless to say, I was the last on out of bed this morning,

I’ll let Rache start the story:

Before I get started, I must say that Alain, his housekeeper Tekita, and Alain’s goddaughter Gema (aka translator) are amazing. AMAZING!  They are treating Markie and me like royalty.  I have never experienced such gracious hospitality. As a person who likes to be the nurturer, it has been initially difficult to accept such a lovely, genuine welcome into a lovely home. With that said, when you come to visit me, I will prepare your first drink and then you’re on your own LOL!

Yesterday started fairly early. Tekita and I were the first to arise. I was preparing to shower about the time she handed me a cup of delicious Cuban coffee. She also said something about “agua caliente” which I of course misunderstood it to mean that the coffee was hot. Long story longer, I had a cold shower as the water she heated on the stove for my shower was instead used by Markie. Yep, no hot running water. Tomorrow I’ll know.

Tekita prepared a breakfast of scrambled eggs with bacon and onions, mango juice, ham, cheese, roll, and a banana from the tree in the backyard. We could’ve had some flan from the previous night’s dinner but we had no room in the tummy.

Mark here again….while the eggs were DELCIOUS, and what I usually have some variation of at home, Uncle Markie’s stomach wasn’t having much of it. My first worry was that I’d picked up a bug from the ice in last night’s drinks, but 12 hours is a little quick for gastrointestinal stuff to happen in me – the world traveler with enough flora and fauna in his system that make me reluctant to take antibiotics because they would kill the good stuff along with the bad. What I should have done is make a ham and cheese sandwich for the road. Alas, I didn’t have that forethought.

And now back to Rache:

We drove 2.5 hours out to Valle de Vinales. We passed sugar cane and tobacco fields once out in the country. It appears to be both a national park where people live, work, grow tobacco, etc. And some amazing views. Think of it almost like a tropical Monument Valley Tribal Park and you’ll sort of get the idea. Along the way, we stopped at a Centro Turístco Las Barrigonas which is along the Ruta del Tabaco (I bet you didn’t know you could read Spanish).

There we frolicked amongst a mother pig and her piglets. They were enjoying a dip in a pond near a tobacco field.  Alain is one of those gentle souls who cares for and respects animals. When he discovered the sow was not within reach of greens to nibble, he picked some for her.

Now, roadside rest areas are a little different in Cuba. Piña Coladas are sold and you get to pour how much rum you want into the cocktail.

Mark here again — at this point I have to add that Rache’s suggestion of a Pina Colada was PERFECT for my stomach, which after several hours of weaving/dodging/bouncing on major Cuban highways squished side-to-side like happy sardines in the back of our Chinese Geely motorcar was as welcome to my tummy as was just getting out of the car. Here is a picture of our touring car, though, technically, was taken a day later at a gas station (.90 CUC per liter, FYI, which is basically a USD per liter). The car was nearly new, with seating for three in the back and two in the front.

Back to Rache:

It was delicious. Before we took off, I said hello to a couple beasts of burden pulling a cart.

FYI: It’s not uncommon to see horse and “buggies” trotting down the road, even on the freeway shoulder.

Back to Rache:

Gema told us as we were approaching the valley and that we were in an area that had been hit hard with natural disasters. People lost almost everything and were trying to rebuild their homes and lives as best they could.

Our next stop was near the Hotel Horizonte Los Jazme. which overlooked the valley. The view was so beautiful that tears welled in my eyes. Wonderful piña coladas are served here as well.

Before we drove down to the valley, we made reservations at a restaurant. To speed things up when we came back to eat later in the afternoon, we chose our protein. Options were pork, chicken (my choice), and fish. Near where we parked, there was a hand cranked cane juicer for drinks. I love this type of rustic.

Our first stop was at a small tobacco farm. We were given a presentation (in a tobacco barn) on how tobacco is grown, nurtured, and cured. The seeds are tiny little things.  Everything is organic at the farm. We then ventured over to a little pavilion where we were given a lesson on how to roll cigars. And of course, we were able to purchase organic, hand rolled cigars at the farm. They are wrapped in palm fronds as a preservative. Factory cigars have additives (some harmless, others uncertain) once the organic tobacco reaches their processing.  Still, a Montecristo No. 2 is hard to beat. After all, it was the number one cigar in the world in 2013.  And as an aside, the Montecristo uses leaves from the top, middle, and bottom parts of the plant. Each area of the plant has its own distinctive flavor and quality.

Next we went to Cuevas de Santo Tomas (St Thomas’ Cave). I enjoy caves a lot. The cave was “electrified” by Fidel and it so it was able to accommodate tourists. There were some beautiful mineral formations in the cave. One of the unique features of the cave is that a river runs through it. And yes, we got to take a boat ride in the cave until it narrowed too much for us to pass. We turned around and then were surprised by an opening that lead to a small pool in the river just before the waterfall. It was dramatic.

It was here that we offloaded. Gema and Alain opted to ride a water buffalo while I decided to give the beast of burden a break. Even beasts of burden have their limits.

We stopped briefly at a cave entrance that was also a bar. It seemed quite inauthentic so we didn’t pay the 5 CUC to enter. Still, there was interesting history regarding the slave trade at that cave. “Its primary function is to show the living conditions of the Maroons, slaves who escaped from the barracks of the mills, fleeing ranchers games and took refuge in the goodness of the caves and mountains of this prodigious nature.” [Please note that I am amused by the translation but not by the harrowing existence of the slaves.]

Our last stop before lunch was the giant Mural de la Prehistoria. It was very colorful and huge, if not quite historically accurate. And it was here that I had my first Cristal (Cuban beer) of the trip. [Mark: the “tourist fee” of 3 CUC included a drink coupon—I had a Cuba Libre]. It was refreshing. The scenery in the entire valley is absolutely gorgeous, what with the vibrant shades of green from the various plant life. The dramatic plant covered rock formations make this place a magical place on Earth.

At lunch, Markie, the driver Frank and I had the barbecued chicken while Alain and Gema opted for the barbecued pork. Along with our mains, came banana chips, yucca, salad, Moros y Cristianoss, plus white rice and black beans, and probably some other goodness that I’m forgetting, plus multiple beverages. The bill was 68 CUC, which is about $76.00 USD. For all five of us. I think Alain was worried if we thought it was too expensive since it was in a tourist area. Uh, not a chance on that. $15.00 each for a feast such as ours was a bargain at twice the price.

Full and content from this amazing meal, we all napped in the car on the way back to Havana. Well, I’m assuming Frank did not doze off. As we neared the city, Frank opted for a slight detour that took us into Miramar, the west part of Havana and where I stayed with the others during Christmas 2015. We passed multiple embassies (including the iconic Russian embassy), and several places were most familiar as we drove down 5th Avenue heading for the Malecon (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malecón,_Havana)

While we had a couple rain showers, it didn’t seem too windy to me. However, something was making the sea angry as waves broke over the seawall and onto the boulevard as we drove on the Malecon. I never saw that before. Obviously, not many people were hanging out at this usually busy hang out, especially for young people. Seriously, cars were getting doused just like cars along the Columbia River east of the tunnel out of Chinook during a dicey storm and high tide. I was impressed.

We arrived home (well, Markie and I were sure made to feel like home) here in Alamar and we unpacked our “happy sardine” bodies out of the car. Frank was paid for the day’s journey and it was well worth the cost.  The day was so remarkable in all ways.

Family was here and were enjoying themselves. That gave Markie and me a chance to review our wonderful day on the back patio. And for me to play with the dogs. When family had left, Alain came out back and showed us the turtle pond out beyond the banana tree. He has two turtles.

I was still full from lunch (which was served about 4:30 PM) so went to bed early. Markie stayed up for a while after that I imagine. I certainly slept with a smile on my face after experiencing the beautiful Valle de Vinales. Feeling extremely lucky.

Tekita was kind enough to make Alain a little treat before bedtime…the rolls, ham, cheese from breakfast – what I should have had with me in the car on the way down!

Nice sandwiches to go with my Jack Daniels (not my first choice, but it was what Duty Free at LAX had. I brought one for me, and one for Alain:

Soon, I went to bed myself – it was a LONG day.

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Tue
14
Mar '17

Trip Report: Havana Bound

When you have to be at the airport at 3:30am, of course you should throw a dinner party the night before:

Don’t we look awake in the Uber the next morning – which for some reason was also carrying a large load of flowers:

The Alaska Lounge doesn’t open until 5am, which is when our flight departs, so nothing to do but hang out in the terminal until we can settle in our lovely first class seats. I used a handful (assuming one was missing a finger) of Guest Upgrades.

And before long it was time for breakfast:

And now I’ll turn it over to Rache for this tag team post:

Markie’s and my flight to LA took off right on time. It was a full flight and all went smoothly. Even tho’ the same jet was used from the LAX to Havana, we all left the plane and took all our belongings as it was cleaned. You can tell that there are a few kinks to work out as there was one stamp that was left off our boarding passes. That stamp is verification that Alaska Airlines took in our money that is part of the proof that we paid health insurance for the time we are in Cuba. I now have a better understanding what it’s like to get a stamp on one’s paper and I wish to apologize to all my kids for failing miserably in consistently getting stamps on their papers. 

This would be the stamp:

For some reason, we were served a second (and slightly larger) breakfast on the Los Angeles to Havana portion:

And back to Rache:

After the clog and only slight delay, we were off and actually made up time in the sky so that we landed at José Marti International a bit early. One must remember that the second you land in Cuba, there is a time transformation. It’s not like time stands still, but almost. Island Time.

Our bags took almost forever in getting to the terminal. Mercy. Markie’s bag was taken off the conveyor and mine ended up on a conveyor with another flight. Terminal 2 is small enough that it doesn’t make a difference. However, content in the luggage does make a difference. As always, I packed a whole lot of school supplies. This time, I also packed herbs, spices, flavorings, tons of chocolate, toys, etc. I inspired Markie in this endeavor and he brought six old cell phones. Mistake. We were separated, bags gone through, and we were somewhat interrogated. Markie was being asked why he was bringing in so many phones and I was being asked why I had a power converter (220v to 110v) that included several USB jacks. And I was also being asked why Markie was binging in so many phones. I am not sure if he was asked why I had the power converter [UM: they did not].

Regardless, we were almost the last ones out of the terminal. That stressed us because Alain (our host), the interpreter (his goddaughter), and the driver were supposed to meet us. And here is where “Island Time” needs to be remembered. They had called for a ride. The driver of the ’55 Chevy arrived at Alain’s home at the time they were supposed to meet us at the airport, so they were stressing as much as Markie and I were. They were sure we had left without them. As luck would have it, Alain had a photo of me on his phone so he asked security to check to see if I was in the terminal. I was – having the content of my luggage examined and being questioned. This is done unlike Peru, which takes us to a back room. This questioning is done out in the open in Terminal 2. Alain and Gema’s stress, was lessened once they knew we were in the terminal, but Markie and I didn’t’ know that so we were still stressing.

Long story longer, Markie and I were reunited, we each had to pay a $14.00 fine, and we escaped the clutches of Cuban security and greeted warmly with hugs and kisses from Alain and his goddaughter/translator. The driver loaded our bags and we were on our way.

Alain lives on the east side of Havana, in a former Soviet area called a Alamar. It seems like a lovely area but it was getting dark as we arrived. 

Tekita (cook/maid/house manager) made us a very festive meal with traditional Cuban food. black beans and rice, salad (shredded cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, beets, mild peppers), malanga fries with honey (fritura de malanga con miel). Oh, the main protein was lobster! The huge meal was topped with flan and strawberry ice cream (copa lolita). Stuffed over the top [UM:we both were]. 

And there was even Cuban white wine:

While Cuba DOES have a wine industry, most of their wine is imported from either Spain or South America. If you are interested in the growing wine industry in Cuba, CLICK HERE for and overview of the industry – makes me want to go to the Cuban Wine Show (Festival International del Vino) in October.

And now back to Rache:

We chatted for a bit, Alain and Gema (goddaughter/translator) had a friend who exchanged our money and soon we were off to bed. Markie and I both have our own rooms.

The house is lovely and I’ll describe it more as the week progresses. Besides a parrot (and a lizard), there are two dogs. And that’s important because when I was in Peru, I felt sad that I didn’t have anything to give all the stray dogs in that entire country. so yes, this time, I brought dog treats. I now have two best friends forever in Cachito (dachshund) and Kiara (husky mix).

I did stay up after Michael went to bed, but not for long – I was “running on fumes” as they say.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s adventure.

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2 Comments »

2 Responses to “Trip Report: Havana Bound”

  1. Conan Says:

    My brother just got back and he said he got screwed at ever turn. Had to convert to Euros then to Cup’s. (koops) His lobster tail was stuffed w/chicken and when he bought cigars he ordered 5 (around $80.00US) and when he got back to where he was staying he opened the bag and there were only 4. He and wife were gouged at every turn, Taxi rides, elevator rides you name it they were taken advantage of.

  2. UncleMarkie Says:

    WOW. Totally different experience than ours, but we were also travelling with locals.

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Thu
2
Mar '17

Trip Report: Charleston Mileage Run

For the third time in six months, I’m on the plane for South Carolina…for less than an hour and $260. In return I get another 4830 flight miles toward MVP Gold (and free flights), and 4830 Bonus Miles (towards free flights).

Oh, and it’s four and a half hours to get there, five and a half to get home. Welcome to my Wednesday – which starts early.

My plane is the one behind the 75th Anniversary Alaska Airlines livery.

And they’ve upgraded not just the airport, but interiors…this is premium cabin seating:

Which give you 4-5 more inches of knee room,

And I scored one of the few empty middle seats – not first, but not coach:

Not to mention free booze, and usual (they under catered this flight) a snack box:

Sadly, on the return flight after a quick burger, the middle seat was occupied:

So, that’s how I spent my Wednesday.

Uber’d home:

Was exhausted. Fixed a cocktail, half of it remained on the nightstand – went to bed.

For those that wonder why I would choose to spent my days playing “The Game”, I’m headed to Tokyo and Nagoya Business Class at the end of the month, in July I’m headed to Vietnam Business Class, and in November I’m in Coach (hoping to upgrade) to Uruguay. All on miles. Each of those tickets was basically $100 in fees.

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Sat
25
Feb '17

Trip Report: A Couple Of Days In Santa Fe

This week is just a quick trip to visit the sis-in-law and husband — my only remaining connection to New Mexico. And for $188.20 round-trip, why not. Hell, the rental car was half the airfare.

No upgrade on the way down but the plane was one of the new three-class planes so free drinks and a snack box, but yet another service dog — this one I believe is a real one. Thank goodness the middle seat was open!

One of the quickest and easiest rental car pickups — I was on my way in minutes. It’s about an hour to Santa Fe — made longer by a stop at Albertsons for supplies (i.e. whiskey and mixer).

I still beat sis-in-law home by about five minutes!

A lovely meal of grilled pork chops and a nice bottle of red I brought. It was an early night for them, and by my standards, an early night for me.

This trip is really about visiting them rather than doing anything in town, and their place is really relaxing to hang out. Unlike yesterday when it was 72 degrees and sunny when I landed, today is overcast and in the 60’s – still nice compared to Seattle:

which is why for dinner on night number two, I popped over to the market and picked up a chicken and combined it with some of their veg for a wonderful roasted chicken…

Tonight’s wine was a Spanish White Box wine that I’ve gotten sis hooked on, now I have to track down who distributes it in New Mexico.

Another early evening (I am on holiday after all).

The final meal is at the Santa Fe Bite for a green chili cheeseburger (sis had that street tacos):

Before I knew it, it was time to return the car and catch my plane:

No upgrade, no premium class, and every seat filled on the plane. Sigh.

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Wed
22
Feb '17

Trip Report: Bye Bye San Juan

Time to head back to work. Time to say goodbye to Old San Juan. Since I had luggage, I used the ancient elevator, which moves at the pace of a very old man.

Yep – it has an inner folding closet door that must be closed for it to work.

Breakfast back at Caldera, this time actual breakfast. Two eggs, ham, toast:

But soon enough, it was time for me to call Uber and get a ride to the airport:

Basically, it was $11 – that would be almost exactly half of what the taxi from the airport cost. Fernando had warned me about tension between Taxi and Uber drivers – this was confirmed by my driver when he had to pick me up a block away since there was a cab stand across the street from my hotel.

Got checked in and just past security (yes, there was a TSApre line) was duty free. Wait. Duty free? You can have duty free without having customs and immigration first? Yep. So I ask at the counter what the limit was on the number of bottles of booze I could legally purchase. “How much can you carry?” She was talking about WEIGHT, not quantity.

Yep, this is what I picked up:

That would be (4) Liter Jim Beam (2 for $24), a Don Q Anejo ($18) and a Don Q single barrel bottling from 2007 (on sale, was $100, now $40). Thankfully they packed them in security bags –

Had a little lunch and got some work done at the airport bar:

Didn’t eat many of the fries – if I’d known I’d have had them hold them.

The airport is nice enough – but no lounge, sadly.

No upgrades on this leg, still holding out hope for the Chicago to Seattle leg.

But speaking of lounges – I noticed that my boarding pass had INTL in big letters – meaning United considers this to be an international flight, meaning I get lounge access because I’m Premier Gold. WooHoo!

And it’s one of their remodeled lounges!

Where they make “fancy” drinks at the bar (if you are willing to pay):

As for me, in my hour layover I had three cocktails, two bowls of chicken corn chowder, a helping of 5-cheese lasagna and a spinach salad.

And grabbed some cookies to zip lock for the flight.

So far it was a smooth flight day…until I got to the gate. It was time to board when the captain came out and announced there was a mechanical problem with the engine deicer – which flying into Seattle is a critical piece of equipment. The minute he stopped talking, all of us in line just sat down where we were”

Yep – we are all on the floor.

O’Hare has this cart that I haven’t seen anywhere else, it’s a mobile food stall that just drives around from gate to gate:

Thought that was really cool!

The delay was long enough that I probably should have gone to the lounge that was a gate away. But I was still pretty stuffed, and just a little buzzed.

We loaded up about two hours after we were supposed to and off we went. Sadly, no upgrade, and no middle seat open – at least I was in the bulkhead with a smallish women in the center.

Got into Seattle only an hour late, but it was almost midnight with doesn’t bode well for Roxy sleeping though texts/phone calls for a ride home. He keeps his phone on silent since he has so many message boards he’s on that it would be non-stop bleep, bing, gong, etc.

Time for another Uber!

Basically $23, but I’m home and can wind down from the trip.

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Sat
18
Feb '17

Trip Report: Exploring San Juan, Puerto Rico

Years ago I was in Puerto Rico with Dan – you can see the post here. Note – you’ll have to scroll past the CURRENT Puerto posts to get to the ones from 2004, but since there were several it seemed easier. In 2004 we explored the island, but not Old San Juan, the reason for this trip.

Normally I’d do a “Day By Day” report of a destination city, but I’ve rolled all three days on the ground into one report. Could be that with the heat, I’m coming back to take a lot of naps in the noon day sun. Could be that I’ve just been a slug while I’m here, walking, eating, catching up of work, watching the rolling mess of the current administration.

But let’s start with my first evenings meal here on the island – no help from Yelp, just wandering around until I found someplace that looked OK. Tonight, that would be Deaverdura. Basically, a hole in the wall with a small bar and a kitchen where I think it’s Mom cooking. Don’t expect quick service (it’s Puerto Rico after all), or a menu –what would you like, grouper, pork, chicken, etc., all served with rice and beans. That said, I felt like I was eating at a family table, and felt guilty for being one person at a 4-top..

Started out with a Pina Colada – it is Puerto Rico after all:

And moved onto the pork….

Those are the beans in the cup – they go GREAT over the rice.

I wanted a Mojito as my second drink – but they were out of mint. Truly a family place! I went for a light rum and coconut water…interesting, but not again.

After a night of sleep, it was off exploring the city. Walled down to the port and found a sandwich/wine bar for a bite. Mejunje Restaurant would be the place. I had the Sirloin Sandwich, which came with potato chips with a drizzle of balsamic – odd, but tasty:

$13 with tip and a Diet Coke. Apparently, dinners and wine run more.

Off to the old fort after my food…ended up walking there. As long as you have good shoes, Old San Juan is very walkable, and there is a free (if crowded) public trolley that winds its way slowly around the old city.

I opted for the trolley back into town for a nap. Uncle isn’t used to this heat and humidity.

Dinner at Hecho En Casa (which had a couple of Rainbow Flags inside, but I don’t see them on any Gay San Juan site, though the “hostess” was definitely family) for a local favorite, Mofongo, mine End Pulop (with Octopus). Here is a definition of Mofongo and here is a picture:

And your options:

Happy Uncle Markie….

Time for more cable TV, something that doesn’t exist in my house in Seattle. I’m an OTA (Over The Air) kind of TV watcher at home. Oddly, in the evenings, still watching the same thing, though during the day, it’s CNN with the sound off.

Exploring the city the next day brought a bit of a shock. FOUR cruise ships in town – right at the edge of Old San Juan. Holly Moly!

When I say “in the middle of the city”, I mean it. The city changed overnight as it were. The free trolley was jammed with PPPs (pasty, pudgy, plainspeople). You should have seen the CVS across from the dock. If it weren’t for cheap local rum I wouldn’t have entered!

Sad to say that my morning/noon meal the next day was at Wendy’s, on the Square across from the hotel, next to the Department of State (seriously, right next door, and there are cops everywhere) for a Clasico Singulare con Caso. This is what happens when you are cranky and need food NOW!

More exploring during the day, but I realized the cruise ships were in town for TWO days, so there goes my revisit to the Bacardi Distillery that I did in 2004. (LINK)

It might be the heat, or the new mini-dose blood pressure meds, or the humidity, but I’m taking a lot of naps in the air-conditioned cell.

But you still have to do at least one church….

The church was right across the street from El Convento – the hotel (in an old convent) that I’d toyed with staying at, but the “discount” rate of $265 a night put me off:

Maybe if I’d been travelling with someone I would have sprung for it (paging Rache!)

There was also this “odd” guy I saw a couple of time on the street – the first time is musket was not covered:

Guessing he was part of the National Park’s Fort Program. Did I mention I didn’t even go into the Fort – I left my Parks Pass as home, and was too cheap and too tired to pay the $5.

Dinner tonight was just around the corner from my hotel – at Café Punto. I opted for the non-air-conditioned hallway with more action that the two small square rooms with AC.

I ordered two appetizers off the extensive (and somewhat expensive) menu – the assorted meat/seafood turnovers and the fresh fish ceviche:

I love that it came with fried plantain chips. That would be a mojito with a slice of sugar cane as a stir stick. A little sweet for me, but when in Puerto Rico…

By day you notice that many of the street bricks are glazed (like Portugal):

Unless the cruise ships are still hanging around…

By night it is just as beautiful:

For my last full day in San Juan, decided to try the café in the lobby of the hotel for a sandwich…. Which was pretty good! The place is called Caldera.

 

And there is one very cute staff member (Ernesto?):

Wandered around the city a little more, took another nap (the heat kills me), got a little blogging and shop work done:

Even though there is no power, the second-floor breezeway between my room and the incredibly noisy ice maker is a nice quite space with a decent cell signal since I can’t get the laptop to connect to the network, but my phone will. Finally gave up and just tethered laptop to the phone.

For dinner I ended back at Café Punto to try their other ceviche which was baby conch, and their tropical ensalada capresse:

Basically I’ve been spending in the $30-$35 a night on dinner that included a cocktail or two. Trust me, I could have spent MUCH more looking at some of the menus in windows.

Well, that’s it for this post for tomorrow I leave the Caribbean and go back to Seattle.

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Wed
15
Feb '17

Trip Report: Puerto Rico Bound

Why Puerto Rico? When I was bumped off a flight in October in Columbia, South Carolina I was given a $600 voucher. When I was looking at the calendar – February sounded like a great time to go someplace warm.

Roxy was around so I got a ride to the airport in my own car — $20 savings right there – with time for a goodbye hug:

Got my bag checked and headed to the Alaska Lounge – with a pit stop along the way. I was coming out of the bathroom when I spotted these two guys that looked interesting…and looked like they could use free food and free drinks. Dragged them into the Lounge with me since I’m allowed two guests:

That would me myself, Jeff (I think):

And Payton:

Both from Bend, Oregon, I hope these boys don’t end up dead – they are on their way to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico on the spur of the moment. Basically $2,000 dollars in airfare. For that, they probably could have flown first but I doubt they thought of that. They have an overnight layover at Sea-Tac so it’s probably a good thing I got them into the lounge for some food. Lounge closes at midnight, so hopefully they won’t burn it down in that time. I do worry a little since they seem to be out of a Cheech & Chong movie. Peyton is sporting a black eye from “falling down a couple of times”.

My guess that Payton is the wild one and Jeff the hapless tagalong was confirmed by this mugshot:

Seems that when he was 20 he got popped for DUI at 3:30am. Let this be a reminder – ALL sorts of stuff ends up on the web. (http://oregon.arrests.org/Arrests/Payton_Hill_22889703/) Had he not given me his business card with his full name on it…..

That was my airport excitement. One of the nice (and few) things about flying United is that in the waiting area they have a seat map of what’s still open – meaning that when I saw my bulkhead row was full, I had them move me to the exit row where the seat next to me was open:

A note to fliers – that bulkhead seat is also directly across the aisle from a bathroom door, so don’t expect to get much sleep.

Up in the air and it’s time for drinks, even though it’s a red-eye (which means I’ll pay for it upon arrival in San Juan):

Just as Alaska Air has added more premium liquor to the in-flight service (Crown Royal & Woodford Reserve), United has added Jim Beam Devil’s Cut (90 proof, which might not be a good idea) and for a dollar more, Buffalo Trace (both are Bourbons).

Spent too much of the flight reading and drinking, with not enough time sleeping, so my arrival at IAD (Washington, DC) was a little on the hungry/groggy side. Grabbed a quick bite – didn’t seem like enough time to make good value out of my United Lounge pass in my current state.

I’d gotten upgraded to First on the IAD to San Juan leg a couple of days ago (I was number one on the upgrade list for the SEA-IAD flight), so I have a little more room on this leg:

And pre-takeoff drinks…..

I was not hungry from my snack earlier, but I can’t turn down free food. I also realized I’d be starving by the time I hit San Juan at 1:30.

I really should have slept more on the flight to Washington – that way I could have drank more free whiskey on the way to San Juan. After that second breakfast I was OUT until we landed. Live and maybe learn.

Upon landing in San Juan I almost thought I was in Vegas!

Contrary to what Fernando told me, Uber doesn’t service the airport for arrivals – but the cabs are flat rate, with a “quote sheet” with the “base fare” of $19 and the “extra” $1 per bag, $1 airport fee, $2 fuel surcharge. Not that bad.

Got checked into the Hotel Plaza De Armas after a little delay – I showed up at 1:45 and check-in is at 3 – but they got me in at 2:30 with no extra charges. I’d wanted to stay in the heart of Old San Jose, which means, nothing is cheap. Even the non-fancy stuff is not cheap, hence, my $90 a night for a monastic windowless cell.

Plus side is very tall ceilings, down side is that wi-fi doesn’t reach the room, and cell service barely does, no coffee maker, no clock. Clean but a little on the tatty side.

I should add that there is a HUGE, for the size of this hotel, atrium that does have decent wi-fi (though I could never get the laptop to connect, the phone did) and plenty of comfortable places to sit.

As you can see, I’ve taken up residence on one of the walkways outside my room – FYI, this furniture wasn’t here when I checked in.

This spot is less than 20 feet from their routers wired third-world style:

What I wish they’d do is take a sander/buffer to the floor tiles, which would really POP. When this building was built, this was an open-air atrium.

My first priority was taking a three-hour nap.

Next up, exploring Old San Juan.

[? ? ?]

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Tue
14
Feb '17

Trip Report: Berkeley For A Couple Of Days

At least one adventure per week (sometimes three) for two months running. This week it’s Berkeley to delivery some wine (and have a good time).

Yep, that’s one of the pieces of luggage I repaired a week or so ago. But as we all know, trips start in the lounge with a Red Baron:

Lunetta picked me up at the airport (an option when I fly into Oakland mid-day) to pick up me (and the wine):

But when we get together, it’s really about the company and the food – as witnessed by the lovely ensalada caprese I made:

To go with the scallops for dinner:

But it’s really about the company…

The following day was errands in the afternoon, and q quiet dinner with the boys in the evening after making a condolence call to the family of a friend that had passed recently. I’m not good at those things, so I was happy that there were time constraints on the visit as the bird was in the oven (as they say):

Yes, that is gravy to go with the chicken…

Nothing like good food to put one at ease.

And ease I needed with the text/email (got both) the next morning. I had a 1ish flight out of San Francisco, but got this notice at 7:35 am:

An important update about your flight.

Confirmation code: XXXXXX

Dear MARK

Due to weather conditions, FAA Air Traffic Control has issued a ground delay program for San Francisco. In order to minimize your delay, we will be operating out of San Jose, CA. We are offering complimentary shuttle service between the two airports. If you need the ground transportation, we are asking passengers to be at the San Francisco airport 3.5 hours prior to flight departure time. See a representative for information. 

Seriously – you moved AIRPORTS on my flight – to one that is an hour and a half away from SFO?

Lunetta was planning on running me to the BART station so I could catch the train to SFO so I got him up early since I needed to be there 3.5 hours before the flight. Luckily, he saw the silliness of taking an hour-long BART into SFO just to retrace the trip to get to San Jose. He got his clothes on and just drove me to San Jose – an hour each way in morning traffic. Maybe we should call him Saint Lunetta.

So, instead of having noodles in the Cathy Pacific Business Lounge (which is why I booked that particular flight in the first place, I had a mimosa and eggs benedict in the San Jose Airport at San Jose Joes:

All’s well that ends well?

Home about the same time as expected…but I don’t really need that kind of stress. Luckily, I have friends.

[? ? ?]

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Sun
12
Feb '17

Trip Report: Back To Boston For The Miles

For the miles, and lunch with friends. This is the final Boston mileage run for the winter – I’m surprised that all of the flights actually made it there and back since Boston has serious winter weather. As it turns out, it was Seattle’s weather that almost tripped me up.

Yep, that is a snow storm in Seattle…but I’m warm inside…

But there was a huge backup in getting deiced….

Because we were on the ground for two hours, by the time we got in the air – those who were still awake were treated to free movie players, free drinks, chocolates….

We were an hour late getting into Boston – but the weather there was great:

At 10 I left the lounge (where I’d had breakfast and a nap) and headed to Harvard Square to have lunch with Pucci at Toscano (Italian).

I went for the gnocchi:

It was good to spend some “guy time” with him before heading back to the airport (and another nap or two).

At the gate, I was surprise once again with an upgrade on the return to Seattle – that’s three weeks in a row!

Even got my favorite seat! Maybe it does pay to bring chocolates for the counter staff along with the flight attendants.

Bring on the food and booze!

Grilled pear arugula salad with walnuts and blue cheese crumbles…

I opted for the blackened chicken with café au lait sauce, mashed potatoes and creamed spinach…

Finished with a Cupcake Royal mini-cupcake.

Not a bad way to end a mileage run. And for some reason, a bathroom selfie:

Home to bed for tomorrow I’m headed to the Bay Area.

[220.8]

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Sat
11
Feb '17

Trip Report: Los Angeles For A Burger

Yep, a third trip in one week. This one I doing an LA turnaround (coming home on the same plane that brought me) on Virgin America. I haven’t flown them in years so thought I’d try it now that I rack up Alaska miles when I fly with them.

Nothing like getting stuck in traffic on the way to the airport!

But eventually I’m having breakfast in the lounge, then off to the gate:

And into the plane I go…

Yep. Purple/Red mood lighting.

Sadly, I wasn’t in First.

I even got a free drink out of them!

Got off the plane in LA, grabbed a burger from Burger King, and queued up for the return.

With the weather in LA, glad I didn’t book a layover flight. And wing my way home I go.

All in all, it was cool to be able to order drinks from your seatback screen, but I think seatback entertainment is going away in favor of streaming video over wi-fi since most people travel with tablets/smart phones. The mood lighting is cool, but all Alaska’s new jets have color variable lighting.

It was a cheap flight ($100.60 round-trip) so it made it easy to check out. It will be interesting to see how the merger progresses.

[219.8]

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Mon
6
Feb '17

Trip Report: Sacramento

This week’s pleasure travel is to lovely Sacramento – though technically Folsom where Jameson lives. It feels like, “another day, another flight.”

Suddenly, most of my lunches are now looking like this:

With a view like this….

Until I end up on the plane, luckily with an upgrade…

When the view changes to this:

That would be Mt. Rainer. This would be a double:

And someone in the back is making balloon animals for the crew – I just brought them chocolate.

And we get a little snack on the way down …

That would be build it yourself bruschetta.

Landed, got my bag and then rental car hell began. 45 minutes to get a car, ten people in line, one agent. Word to the wise when booking EZ/Advantage Rent A Car. The delay was long enough that Jameson actually got to the house before me.

At least when Jameson and I get together, we drink well:

And eat well:

Those it pains me to pay retail for wine – at least it was on the 50% off rack.

For some reason I didn’t get a picture of us together so you’ll just have to suffer with Jameson doing his back exercises:

Up in the morning early, off to the airport, returned the car which was painless, got home early afternoon for a quite evening.

[217.8]

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Sat
4
Feb '17

Home Report: What I Do On Layovers

On one of the recent layovers from travel and work, it was time to repair the luggage that I depend on. Both of my regular bags are no longer in production so it’s DIY time for maintenance.

Porter Case

This was designed for photographers and came with a square foam lining to fit gear – it was designed as a carry one, and really wasn’t built for being thrown in cargo hulls around the world. The fixes this week were tiedown screws, and putting a couple of rivets in to replace a piece that had failed. My musician buddies sand, varnish, sand, varnish, etc. their pedal steel guitars – I do it to my suitcases because I can’t replace them.

A year ago, Alaska managed to rip the tires off this one (including the axle) and paid a luggage repair place to fix it – they fixed it with standard luggage wheels which didn’t last. I broke apart some Home Depot casters for MUCH better wheels, and a threaded axle with locktite nuts on it:

Meant to hold up to 150 pounds between them, and when this thing turns into a hand truck with a couple of cases of wine on it…

But just like the wheels, the hinge mechanism is starting to fail, so, it’s replace screws (bottom right of the bag):

And re-rivet the handle:

To replace this crappy long rivet:

I’ve still got some random problems when there is a ton of liquor (read Bourbon) in the bag – it stresses out the latch for the handle. That’s another day’s problem. Another annoyance is that it has a TSA approved lock that some really small airports apparently don’t have keys to – I’ve been paged more than once.

FlighTable

Then, there is my other bag – a FlighTable. Combination roll aboard, laptop stand. Here it is in “laptop stand” mode. I’ve had pilots come up to me and salivate.

The table folds down onto the outside of the bag – problem was – after repeatedly checking the bag, some of the plastic internal support broke:

Maybe the piece I bent out of aluminum scrap in the garage (oddly, the right size!) will work after drilling a couple of holes and bending the ends:

It fits as well!

Thankfully, all the fabric zips up over all the infrastructure.

And then when I’m not repairing luggage it’s getting to the shop to box wine club after getting in from a flight at 10:30 the night before.

And making the occasional bacon wrapped veal Italian sausage meatloaf:

No rest for the wicked.

[? ? ?]

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