Category Archives: Travel

Trip to Cuba (2016) – 2

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We stayed at the Ocean Vista Azul, which is rated 5 stars by the Cuban government, and also the newest resort in the Varadero area. Before going into detail, I want to state that I did not book this hotel just because this is 5 stars and I have so much money.  Many advices noted that you’ll have to subtract a star or two from the Cuban hotel rating because of their economy and infrastructure. Usually, I go for 2.5-3.5 star rating when I’m traveling. The lobby looked fine – actually, more than fine.

The front receptionist gave us a booklet with resort information. I don’t do what or why, but it looked a bit…unorganized or cheap. While waiting for the room to be made, my mom wanted to have a cup of mojito. Yes! Mojito! From Cuba!

Mom: One mojito please.

Bartender: I can’t make mojito now.

Mom: …? What? Why?

Bartender: No mint.

Let’s recap. This is 5 star resort in Cuba, the land of mojito, but the bartender can’t make mojito because there’s no mint today. So she switched to lemonade, and the Bartender just put the lemon juice powder and put it in the blender with ice. Uh…uh…yeah.

The room was made so we went up. The bell boy was kind and friendly, and of course the Gangnam style was mentioned. Yeah, thanks, Psy.

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The room. Yeah, it looks fine, but….

The room wasn’t bad. Actually, it was more neat than we thought. But as time goes, we realized many of the details weren’t so 5 stars. 5 star hotel means that the hotel offers every possible small luxuries to its guests. For instance, instead of clean, simple and nice bedsheets, 5 starts offer clean, simple, nice bedsheets made of superb Egyptian cotton. The toiletries would be of Hermes, Dior, or something in that level. The complementary tea and cups would be something like Wedgewood. That’s not the case in Cuban 5 stars.

From left: 2 pillows in one big pillowcase. Use your imagination to use this.
The fridge case (?) had a huge gap underneath, so unless you open the fridge like you are handling Baccarat crystal, the fridge falls into the gap and you’ll have to struggle to put it back, taking forever.
The tiles started to fall off toward the end of our stay. 

The curtains were made of nylon, with a string to pull the curtain. Yup, string. There was no sheet for blanket. There were cups, but no complementary teas. No Kleenex, notepad, and pen. There was no brand/explanation for the complementary soaps and body toiletries. Only then I started to understand why so many travelers said I have to subtract a star or more from the Cuban hotel rating. Few days later, the glues between the tiles started to fall off.

I wasn’t upset. I somewhat expected this, as my passport country borders with North Korea and I did my research before flying to Cuba. But still, there is a difference between what you know as information and what you actually experience. This was one of that moment. For me, it was just an amazement.

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Printed on a piece of….paper. Literally.

Next day, we met with our tour representative at the lobby. She offered us a booklet for tours and contact information. The booklet was a simple folded paper, printed with a color printer for PC. When I visited other Caribbean countries, their tour info was properly printed on a clean, hard, glossy paper. Anyhow, we decided to go for Havana day trip and Three Cities (Santa Clara, Trinidad and Cienfuegos). We tried to pay with card, almost forgetting that the transaction between Cuba and US does not work, even with the newly revived Cuban-US relation!

Me: Uh…perhaps this one? (Hands my Wells Fargo card).

Rep: Is this US card? This won’t work.

Yup, denied.

Me: How about this one? This isn’t an American card. (Hands my AMEX card, issued by Korean company)

Rep: (looks at the card) Well, it says AMEX here so I don’t know…

Denied, even if it’s issued in Korea.

Me: Alright, let’s try this one (Hands my MasterCard, issued by Korean company and bank).

Worked. Thanks, BC card.

This wasn’t the end. Later in the evening, we went to the a la carte restaurant in the resort. There was no cloth napkin. Each person gets one paper napkin. The flower on the table was made out of paper towel with glitters. The cleaning ladies would not give additional toiletries unless we used up what was given, or call and ask for it.  The towels were way too new, so once you wipe your body, you are covered in white fabrics.

The buffet food wasn’t so bad, but compared to other Caribbean resorts, this was not 5 stars. I saw a bit too much recycling of foods, or same menus repeating for the whole week. The vegetables were cucumber, beet, carrot and cabbage. No leafy veggies. Occasionally, there was cooked zucchini or pumpkin. But, by Cuban standard, this was 5 stars. I realized this after eating at the local restaurant during the tour.

The service was different, too. My guess is that people are not familiar on what to do in service industry, since this is a communist country. However, some were quick and they knew what they need to do to get more tips. For them, we tipped. The bar drinks weren’t that great, so we didn’t go to bar as much as we did in Jamaica or Dominican Republic. Coffee was good, though (obviously).

So, like Cuba, the resort was full of paradox. In the cafeteria, you can find Spanish wine, German yogurt, European cheese. Ice cream and pastries were actually good. But you can’t find enough paper towel and shampoo. For people who grew up in a developed, industrial, capitalist countries, this is something really hard to understand unless you experience it.

The similar things happened in Varadero airport departures. In other countries that heavily depend on tourism, the salesperson will greet you and say “let me know if you need anything.” In Varadero airport, no one really cared even as we looked around. Salespeople were simply reading books, knitting (!) or go way over to another store and chatted with another salesperson with a coffee. Basically, “I don’t care, I still get my paycheck and I don’t get any incentive from selling stuff to you” attitude. I don’t mean they were rude. More on this later.

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The People’s Coke and Fanta. They actually taste very good! 

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Trip to Cuba (2016) – 1

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Few years ago, I seriously considered visiting Cuba, even if that means I’ll have to go up north to Canada and then go South again, alone. I read a lot of travel journals and reviews for research, and two things stood out: (1) subtract 1-2 stars from the hotel rating, (2) tip the people with consumer goods, rather than cash.

It was so hard to process that in my mind. Wait, what? Subtract stars from the hotel rating? Why? How? What should I expect? And tip with goods? Not cash? Then how much of what should I give? I don’t want to insult anyone! After my Cuba trip, those tips were all very true. However, little did I know back then.

On top of that, my Cuba trip was hastily decided. So we didn’t take much goods with us. I still remembered that tip about hotel, so we made a reservation at the newest hotel in Varadero, Cuba, which had 5 stars. Like everyone said, it was 3.5 stars by international standard, but more on that later.

So like that, I got on a 3.5 hour flight from Toronto, Canada to Varadero, Cuba.

Day 1 at Varadero. I’ve never seen such a cool dark clouds over the sky.

I wasn’t too worried about not getting in to Cuba. We are coming to spend so the government is unlikely to turn us away. You need to fill out a custom declaration and entry/departure visa form. The English wordings on custom declaration was so strange, so I had to call the flight attendant and ask what that means. Let’s not forget I lived in an English-speaking country for so many years and got a proper education there.

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As of the entry/departure form, you cannot mess that up and cannot lose the half of the form. If you mess up the form, you’ll probably have to pay for another. And if you lose the half of the form, you are in trouble when you are departing Cuba. The border control does not staple/clip that form for you. Thanks…Probably because of lack of consumer goods like paper? I don’t know.

As I landed on Varadero airport, I was standing in line for border control. Strange enough, their border control reminded a lot of Chinese airport border control. The strange thing about Cuban border control booth is that it has an auto-lock door.  So you can’t see what’s going on beyond the booth, unlike many other international airports. You can’t leave until the officer approves your entry and opens the door in her booth. It makes you feel like you are in some kind of interrogation booth.

Passing the border control, I proceeded to the luggage carousel. The luggage carousel looked pretty old, and there were several security guards with pointers…without leash! It looked like they were just hanging out with dogs. The rest of that day was pretty uneventful. You get out, meet your tour representative, get on a bus, watching beautiful Caribbean Sea and bright colored buildings, and get off at your hotel.  Occasional sighting of old cars running by the ocean offered me momentary time travels.

Trip to Cuba (2016) – Intro

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Cuba. One of the last communist dictatorship countries in the world. I guess that is why so many seasoned travelers are attracted to this Caribbean island. Including myself, most people would think of Cuba with several icons: Communism. Dictatorship. Revolucion! Castro. Che Guevara. Havana Club Rum & cigar. Old cars. Buena Vista Social Club.

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I seriously considered traveling Cuba several years ago, but the plan didn’t work out then. But oh, life – I didn’t really plan on going to Cuba this year, but while visiting family friends in Toronto, Canada, my family decided to visit Cuba, somewhat spontaneously.

Usually, traveling tropical region like South Asia or Caribbean means enjoying beach, warm weather and beautiful scenery, eating lots of fruits and delicious food, all with cheaper cost, and coming back with a thought, “man, that was awesome rest.” But Cuba was different. I’ve never come back from a trip with this much of food for thought. I’m not the boldest traveler, so most of the area I saw are pretty touristy. Still, I am sitting on that food for thought. Perhaps this is because I am a South Korean – the country that went through super-fast-track development, dramatic modern history, vicious ideological war and long dictatorship, and bordering another communist country to this date. For me, most of my Cuba trip was like stepping into the recent past of South Korea, and present of North Korea (well, better than North Korea).

Cuba is worth visiting, although a lot is likely to change within 5 years.  Cuba is not for everyone. If you are a seasoned traveler who can laugh at coverless toilet and knows a lot about modern history and politics, it will be nothing like other countries. It will make you think hard and reflect on things you used to take for granted. However, if you want a simple, comfortable, and fun vacation, Cuba isn’t for you. For that, go to Jamaica or some other Caribbean countries.