Friday, March 10 (Day 10): Going home.

March 12, 2017

We got up early, enjoyed our last breakfast on-board the ship and disembarked the ship easily.  The Jamaican customs and immigration process was quick and efficient.  We caught a shuttle to the airport and checked-in for our flight.  After a layover in Charlotte, which was extremely busy while we were there, we arrived home safe and sound.  I feel so fortunate to have had the ability to see Cuba and definitely recommend it to anyone who is up for an interesting and fun adventure.

Thursday, March 9 (Day nine): Cienfuegos:

March 12, 2017

Cienfuegos with a current population of 150,000 is a beautiful seaside community.  I thought this was the most beautiful Cuban city we visited.  The area was settled by the French formerly living in what is now Louisiana.  It could therefore be said that Cienfuegos was settled by Americans.  Homes of the wealthy were converted to hotels after the revolution.  The architecture of the city reflects its French heritage.  We visited a hotel originally built in 1957 by the Las Vegas mob and a beautiful home owned by the wealthiest family in Cienfuegos before the revolution.

Our next stop was the first of two cultural exchanges.  It involved local dancers performing.  The most interesting part of the visit was the ability to tour a local person’s home.  This was no doubt a wealthy person’s home as they had nice furnishings, including electronics, albeit ancient by today’s standards and a proper kitchen, however we noticed a large metal drum filled with water on the back patio, the kitchen sink had a faucet so not sure if the water filled drum was just extra or running water isn’t always reliable.  Our final stop was a second cultural exchange, which was at an art school.  The school supports local artists who work in various mediums and even includes a kids’ program.  The school also has a special program for kids with Down’s Syndrome.

Bill, MaryKay, Jared and Matt at Wealthiest Person Mansion now hotel close up

Bill, MaryKay, Jared and Matt at Cienfuegos Wealthiest Person’s Home

Cienfuegos Phone Booths In Use

Cienfuegos Phone Booths in use

Cienfuegos Grocery Store with people at counter

Cienfuegos Grocery Store 

Cienfuegos Wealthy Person's Entertaining Room

Cienfuegos Modern Day Wealthy Person’s living room

Cienfuegos Wealthy Person's Kitchen

Cienfuegos Modern Day Wealthy Person’s Kitchen

Cienfuegos Wealthy Person's Back Patio and Water Storage

Cienfuegos Modern Day Wealthy Person’s Back Patio with Water Storage

Sailboats in Cienfuegos Harbor 1

Sailboats in the Cienfuegos Harbor

Cienfuegos Pier

Cienfuegos Pier

Wednesday, March 8 (Day 8): At Sea

March 12, 2017

We slept in and then went to breakfast.  Mid-morning we went to the gym and enjoyed a BBQ lunch.  Tonight was the formal night and we enjoyed the Captain’s cocktail party before dinner.

Impressions of the ship:

The ship is very small by today’s standards.  It boasts 1,200 passengers.  Originally built in 1980 as a ferry, it’s also one of the oldest passenger cruise ships afloat.  The cabins are a little smaller than is typical on more modern ships.  Also, while the ship has most amenities of other ships; a pool, spa, gym, restaurants, casino, shops, they are all just smaller and less elaborate than most newer ships.  Also, food is available during ‘typical dining times’ only.  If you want to have a late lunch, your only option is to purchase a sandwich.  The quality of the food is the highpoint of the ship.  Unlike larger ships that are preparing food for 2,500+ people, the Celestyal Crystal is only preparing food for 1,200 and thus doesn’t need to rely on as many frozen and canned items.  The ships staff is excellent.  The ship is relatively well maintained, although we had two issues with our cabin, the air conditioning and the toilet both needed servicing.  At the time we booked, the Celestyal Crystal was the only cruise ship that sailed to and around Cuba, today several of the large cruise lines sail to Cuba.  I’d recommend considering booking on one of the larger lines.

Bill, MaryKay, Jared, Matt Formal Night Celestyal Crystal

Bill, MaryKay, Jared and Matt during formal night on Celestyal Crystal

Tuesday, March 7 (Day 7): Havana (day two of two):

March 12, 2017

Our first stop on today’s bus tour was an artists’ community called Jaimanitas, created out of mosaic tile. Jose Fuster was the artist who created the movement.  Our next stop was our choice of either the Revolution Museum or the Cuban Art Museum.  Matt and I chose the Revolution Museum, while MaryKay chose the Art Museum.  Matt’s Uncle Bill decided to rest today, rather than tour.

Havana’s population is 2 million.  The Cuban population as a whole is stable, but aging.  This is partly due to a lack of housing; multi-generational housing is common and many young people chose to work and live abroad, sending money home.  The three main religions are Catholicism, traditional African religion and even a small Jewish contingent.  Education is compulsory until ninth grade.  For those wishing to continue onto university the tuition and books are included in their taxes.  Men who are head of a household with children are required to work to provide for their families, those who don’t are taken to court and are ‘found jobs.’  The average wage in Cuba is $15 – $20 per month, up from $1 in the early 1990’s due in part to the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was helping to subsidize Cuba.  While Cuba is certainly a Communist country, they still ration food and the government owns most large buildings and commerce, there are slivers of capitalism shining through.  As of about two years ago pay Wi-Fi hotspots started popping up, Cubans can now buy and sell residential real estate and some restaurants and small shops that sell handmade items can be privately owned.

It should be noted that currently in order for Americans to visit Cuba, it must be part of a cultural exchange program and include a full schedule of educational activities.  Our tour was coordinated by the cruise line via People To People, a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing international understanding and friendship through educational, cultural, and humanitarian activities involving the exchange of ideas and experiences directly among peoples of different countries and diverse cultures.

The Roman Catholic Church under the leadership of Pope Francis and Canada spearheaded the efforts to begin to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba.  For Americans, in addition to a fair amount of cash (you won’t be able to use any form of electronic payment or ATMs), you’ll also want to bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer as public restrooms aren’t up to a Western standard.  In December of 2015 the United States opened the U.S. Embassy in Havana.  Both days in Havana we enjoyed beautiful weather.

This evening after a leisurely dinner and the Latin dance show, which was excellent, we attended Karaoke.  Matt sung several songs, including one with his Uncle Bill.  Matt scored the highest of all the singers.

Jaimanitas from above

Jaimanitas from above

Jaimanitas Pool Area Aerial Photo

Jaimanitas Pool Area

Jaimanitas Palm Tree with MaryKay

Jaimanitas statue with MaryKay

Jaimanitas Matt and Jared with Statue

Jaimanitas Statue with Matt and Jared

Revolution Museum Great Hall

Revolution Museum Great Hall

Revolution Museum Rotunda

Revolution Museum Dome

Revolution Museum President's Office

Revolution Museum President’s Office

Revolution Museum Fighter Plane 3

Revolution Museum Fighter Plane

Havana skyline with crains

Havana skyline with craines

Monday, March 6 (Day 6): Havana (day one of two):

March 12, 2017

Our walking tour began in the Plaza de San Francisco, which was the center of commerce in Colonial times.  Slave trade also occurred in this square.  We then ambled our way through the narrow, cobblestone streets of old Havana where we witnessed Baroque, neo-classical and Spanish-Colonial architecture.  Canons face down in the sidewalk at various points, symbolizing those that weren’t used to defend the city and are being ‘punished’ by forever standing guard reminding people that in the old city only foot traffic is permitted, no vehicles are allowed.

The afternoon bus tour took us to Revolution Square, where a huge marble statue of Jose Marti, the national hero of Cuba stands.  The buildings were adorned with large facial replicas of Fidel Castro, prior Cuban leader and Che Guevara, Argentine rebel.  This was also a taxi stop and most taxis in Havana are classic American cars from the 1950s or Lada sedans.  It was fun to see all these classic American cars still on the road, albeit many in non-original paint colors.

Tonight we experienced true Cuban culture, an evening at the Tropicana night club.  We sat outdoors as about 30 singers and dancers entertained us for a full two hours.  Everything from classic Cuban dance to amazing acrobatics, all in elaborate colorful costumes.  Watching the show you realize the influence Cuban music, dance and costume has on American culture.  Most Las Vegas shows are based on the show we saw as are elements of New York’s Broadway performances, and it’s clear that global singer powerhouses such as Michael Jackson, Madonna and even Lady Gaga were influenced by Cuban costume.

Plaza de San Francisco

Plaza de San Francisco, Havana, Cuba

Plaza de San Francisco Commerce building

Plaza de San Francisco, Commerce building

Hotel Catedral Coming Soon Signage

Luxury Hotel Catedral Coming Soon Sign

Plaza de Catedral

Plaza de Catedral

Plaza de Catedral Church

Plaza de Catedral Church

195X Buick Convertible 1

1956 Buick convertible

195X Chevy Bel Air Blue

1958 Chevy Bel Air

195X Ford Fairlane Convertible 1

1957 Ford Fairlane Convertible

Fidel Castro on side of building

Fidel Castro on side of building

Jose Marti with Cuban flag

Jose Martin with Cuban flag

Cuba's Capital Building

Cuba’s Capitol Building

Havanh skyline with Russian Orthodox Church dome

Havana skyline with Russian Orthodox Church dome

Sunday, March 5 (Day 5): At Sea

March 12, 2017

Today was a sea day, which I was initially looking forward to and envisioned myself exercising in the morning, followed by lounging by the pool and reading.  Unfortunately none of this was possible as we hit rough seas which made exercise impractical, swimming not available as they drained the pool and reading not possible as it would have caused me to be seasick.  We made the best of the situation by attending a towel folding demonstration; Matt participated in the activity by making a dog and we watched an interesting documentary about the history of Cuba.

Matt doing towel folding

Matt participating in towel folding demonstration

Towel folding demo birds eye view

Towel folding demonstration

Matt at dinner with Pirate

Matt at dinner with Pirate

Saturday, March 4 (Day 4): Santiago de Cuba

March 11, 2017

We met our Highlights of Santiago de Cuba tour just after 8:00 a.m. and after quickly clearing Cuban immigration boarded our well air-conditioned bus.  Our first stop was a fort originally built to keep pirates out, but later was used as a prison.  We then stopped at the original Bacardi rum factory which dates back to the 1830’s.  The factory was taken over by the Cuban government during the revolution and is now the home of Havana Club.  Bacardi moved its location to Puerto Rico and has become the world’s largest rum producer.  However, only Havana Club can claim to sell Cuban-made rum.  After sampling some rum and purchasing some along with coffee we continued on our tour.

The homes of the wealthy families from the 1950’s were taken over by the Cuban government just after the revolution and the large homes were repurposed into schools, museums or other public buildings.  Our next stop was the cultural exchange where traditional African-Cuban dances were performed.  Toward the end the dancers invited us to join them as we danced to ‘Guantanamera’.  The song refers to those who live in the hills of Guantanamo Bay, sometimes the term is used in a respectful tone, while other times as a joke.  We then went to a contemporary art gallery and enjoyed the sculptures, pottery and paintings in the gallery.  Our final stop was the San Juan Hill where several important battles were fought and monuments to the Americans, Cubans and Spaniards still stand today.  We were very fortunate as the high for the day was 31 degrees Celsius / 81 degrees Fahrenheit and not humid.  It’s usually much hotter.

Santiago de Cuba was the original capital of Cuba before the capital was moved to Havana.  It currently boasts a population of about 500,000 and another 500,000 make up the million in the metropolitan statistical area.  Prior to 2014, Cuba saw about 2.5 million tourists per year, many coming from Canada and Europe.  Once the Obama Administration announced that they intended to normalize relations with Cuba the number of tourists to Cuba skyrocketed, partly due to the fact that Cuba was in the international news.  In 2015 Cuba saw about 3.5 million visitors and in 2016 four million and in 2017 the island nation is projected to host 4.3 million.  This has caused the Cuban government to begin to more aggressively invest in infrastructure.  As we sailed away from Santiago de Cuba we saw several large construction craines dotting the waterfront.  Many people want to visit Cuba before it becomes very expensive and too touristy.

About 90% of Santiago de Cuba residents own their own home, among the highest percentage in the country.  Cuban homes are typically small with jalousie style windows for ventilation.  It is common for Cuban families to build houses on top of each other and each successive generation lives above the prior one.  The government built some large high-rise condominiums which were sold to families at very low prices.

My impression of Cuba is that while the people are poor, they take great pride in their surroundings.  We saw very little trash and the homes and buildings are as well maintained as they can be given the small cash flow.  The Cubans are also innovative, several times during our tour locals would pick fruit off trees and offer to sell it to us.  We of course saw many 1950s American automobiles, along with several 1970s and 1980s Ladas and a few newer Kias.  Many of the classic American automobiles are used as taxis and while the bodies are authentic, many replacement parts are used which are not original or even retrofit.  For instance I saw a 1970s Jeep steering wheel on a 1950s Buick.  Some of the engines have also been replaced with newer ones.  We didn’t notice too many motorbikes.  Cuban drivers are very polite and we didn’t notice any unnecessary horn honking.

Santiago de Cuba Fort with flag close up

Santiago de Cuba fort with Cuban flag

Santiago de Cuba Fort Bill and Matt

Bill and Matt at Santiago de Cuba fort

Santiago de Cuba Seaside view

Santiago de Cuba, view from top of fort

Santiago de Cuba Cultural Exchange Center blue 1

Santiago de Cuba Cultural Exchange Dancer

Musica by Liudmila Lopez

Musica by Liudmila Lopez

Galleria Rene Valdez MaryKay, Matt, Bill and Jared

Galleria Rene Valdez, MaryKay, Matt, Bill and Jared

Friday, March 3 (Day 3): Boarding Celestyal Crystal

March 11, 2017

We checked out of our Montego Bay hotel, enjoyed one last ocean-view buffet lunch before we took off for the cruise ship terminal, only a 5-minute drive away.  We were going to take a cab, but as we were gathering our luggage I noticed a large tour bus with tourists inside.  I asked the driver ‘Where are you going?’  He replied ‘The cruise ship terminal.’  I said ‘how much would you charge to take the four of us and our luggage,’ to which he replied ‘$20’, to which I said ‘Sold.’  As we boarded the tour bus the tour guide asked that we sit in the back of the bus so the tour passengers would be given priority when we got to the port.  The bus was filled with the tour group Travelers of Distinction from New York.

When we got to the small port we were told we had to pay $35 each as a customs/immigration tax which is due for anyone staying in Jamaica more than 24 hours.  We weren’t told this by the ship; fortunately we had the cash.  It should be noted that for Americans to visit Cuba you’ll need several hundred dollars in cash with a fair amount of small bills.  You’ll need to exchange money in Cuba, you’ll want the Cuban Convertible Currency (CUC’s) as they are close to 1:1 with the American dollar and can easily be exchanged back to U.S. dollars at the end of your trip if you need to.  We then boarded our modest cruise ship and settled in.  Matt and I went to the gym, while MaryKay and Bill heard the lecture about the upcoming tours we’d be taking.  After the mandatory emergency drill we enjoyed a nice dinner in the Amalthia Restaurant.

Jared and Matt Emergency Drill

Cuba Cruise: Wednesday, March 1 and Thursday, March 2 (Day 1 and 2): Traveling to Montego Bay, Jamaica

March 11, 2017

We arrived at the San Diego airport a little early as we weren’t sure how busy it would be for a mid-week night flight.  As it turns out the airport was very quiet and we were the only ones at the American Airlines check-in counter.  Holding first class tickets, after we cleared security we went to the lounge to relax before our flight.  Imagine our surprise when we were told that the lounge is only for first class ticket holders traveling far distances, as in Europe or Asia, evidently the Caribbean doesn’t count even though it was international and involved flying over the ocean.  I was so mad I took to Twitter, sending three angry Tweets to American, it should be noted that I rarely Tweet and have never send one to a corporation.  I did get a response from American, which just reiterated what the lounge attendant had stated.  I still think this is a very poor customer experience.  First world problems as they say.

Our four-hour flight from San Diego to Miami was fine and I was able to nap along the way.  We arrived in Miami at 5:40 a.m. and had a four-hour layover.  We busied ourselves with some travel-related Googling and then boarded our 1.5 hour flight to Montego Bay.  We arrived at beautiful Montego Bay a little before noon, easily passing through customs and waited in the baggage claim for Matt’s Aunt MaryKay and Uncle Bill who were arriving just a few minutes after us.  With the three of us united, I hailed and negotiated a taxi for us and we arrived at the Sunscape Resort 20-minutes later.

We enjoyed a buffet lunch while waiting for our ocean-front rooms to be ready.  After check-in MaryKay, Bill and I enjoyed the pool and Matt took a much deserved nap.  That evening we enjoyed a delicious Italian dinner in one of the on-property restaurants.  It was an all-inclusive resort so all the food and drinks were included, which was nice.

Montego Bay Sunscape Resort

Sunscape Resort, Montego Bay, Jamaica

Sunscape Resort Montego Bay

Sunscape Resort, Montego Bay, Jamaica

Celestyal Crystal Pulling into Montego Bay

Celestyal Crystal pulling into Montego Bay, Jamaica

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day Twenty-four: Thursday, March 20 (Travel home from Beijing to San Diego):

March 20, 2014

We got up very early and checked out of the hotel.  Jack, our driver for the past three days picked us up at 5:15 a.m. and took us to the airport.  Even at that early hour there was some traffic on the road.  We arrived at gigantic terminal three of Beijing international airport 40-minutes later.  The terminal is at least as long as an American football field.  After we checked-in and dropped off our luggage we went to Starbucks to spend the last of our Chinese Yuan on coffee for MaryKay and Bill.  We boarded the Boeing 787 dream-liner, I in business class and MaryKay and Bill in economy.  The business class section is very nice as is the economy section, however the dimming window shades don’t get very dark, think auto window tinting.  I was very hungry as all I’d had that morning was a protein bar four hours earlier, so was very happy to have my breakfast/lunch combo meal. 

We arrived in Tokyo and I said my good-byes to MaryKay and Bill as they were connecting to Delta to Portland and I was continuing on Japan Air Lines to San Diego.  The business class lounge is the nicest I’ve experienced.  In addition to plenty of space to relax and plenty of hot food, alcoholic and non- alcoholic drinks there was a sleeping area and even massage chairs.  I used my 4.5 hour layover to update my blog before the last leg of the flight. 

I feel so fortunate to have had this incredible experience.  I got to visit five very distinct countries and nine cities and have many wonderful memories of our time here with Matt and Aunt MaryKay and Uncle Bill who were so appreciative of the effort I put in to make the trip smooth and enjoyable.  I hope one day to share Asia with my parents as I know they would enjoy it.