Planet   Backpacker
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier

Havana Libre from Planet Backpacker

 Increasing numbers of Americans find Cuba's charms irresistible, with many visiting the country on cultural exchange programs, or simply thumbing their noses at the embargo and winging it through Canada or Mexico.  
  With the resumption of diplomatic ties with the U.S. in 2015, there are now many cultural exchange options if you desire to legitimize your trip.  In any event, the embargo no longer seems to be the obstacle it once was.
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier
Cuba, Havana, George Foster, Planet Backpacker, backpackers
An American in Havana: Ernest Hemingway? No, it's Central American adventurer George Foster, on assignment in Cuba.

Travels With My Wife

$14.95

Check out my book -- available at amazon.com and Apple iBooks, $4.99 
 By Robert Downes

www.planetbackpacker.net


   Sneaking into Cuba via the backdoor of Mexico or Canada is a thrill enjoyed by thousands of American adventurers each year.  On the downside, if you make the trip, you can expect absolutely no assistance from the U.S. government if you get in a jam. In fact, you run the risk of a severe fine from the feds for the crime of traveling to Cuba and deluding yourself that you live in a free society. Then too, thanks to the embargo, your credit cards and ATM connection is worthless, meaning you've got to wander around Havana with hundreds of dollars in cash hidden on your body.

   One traveler I know made the mistake of publicly thumbing his nose at the embargo during the Bush administration, making an ill-advised admission of his visit to U.S. Customs.  He was threatened with a fine of $100,000 unless he signed a statement renouncing his visit and promising not to go again.

   Rumor has it that the Obama administration is less zealous in persecuting U.S. visitors to Cuba, but caution on spilling the beans on your trip is advised.

   In 2000 my pal and business partner George Foster and I made the trip the legit way, as journalists licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department.  In those pre-9/11 days of the Clinton administration, U.S. customs agents just gave you a bored wave through the gate if you arrived from Montreal with a tell-tale tan and Cuban stamps on your passport.  No worries, comrade!

   Our trip included a visit to the Bay of Pigs:


   BAY OF PIGS - CUBA Forty years ago, a force of 60,000 Cuban militiamen thundered down the jungle roads of Zapata province to defend their revolution from an invasion backed by the C.I.A.

   Here on the shores of the Bay of Pigs (Playa Giron), Fidel Castro and his green troops captured more than 1,100 counter-revolutionaries in what was the most embarassing incident of the Cold War for the United States. The echo of the Bay of Pigs and anger over Castro's communist dictatorship reverberates to this day in the form of the U.S. Trade Embargo which has punished the impoverished Cuban people for nearly half a century.

   The irony of the Bay of Pigs is that here on the beach where Cuban artillery dueled with U.S. tanks and warships stands a sprawling tourist resort dedicated to the highest principles of capitalism. It was also once one of Fidel's favorite fishing spots.

   You arrive in the sleepy little town of Playa Giron expecting to find a $10 room in someone's house with rice and beans for dinner and nothing to do but watch the donkeys on the beach as the sun goes down. Not bad, come to think of it, considering you're in a communist country.

   What a shocker then to find an upscale seaside resort as pleasant as anything in Florida or Mexico at a fraction of the price.

   At the Hotel Horizontes in Playa Giron, a "packaged tourist" can spend the night for $38 U.S. with a beachfront bungalow; huge breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets; an all-you-can-drink open bar; and a nightclub show featuring a Cuban band

- all included.  (Recall, however, that this was in 2000.)


KICKIN' BACK

   Be sure to try a Havana Special — a mix of rum, pineapple juice and grenadine — as you lounge by the pool with your Cuban cigar, straining to hear the machine guns which once chattered on the beach.

   At the resort you'll find people from all over the world having a ball — Canadians, Germans, Italians, French — but very few Americans — even though Cuba lies just 90 miles from our shores.

   And on the north coast in the resort town of Varadero, you'll find a 10-mile strip of mega-hotels built by the Spanish, bent on creating Cuba's version of Cancun.

   Meanwhile, back in Havana, you'll find as many as six beret-clad cops on a street comer, all dedicated to making the tourist's stay as pleasant and safe as possible on an island which is already considered the safest country in the Caribbean.

   It's not all sweetness & light.  On a walk through Havana's back streets at dusk, a husky voice calls out from a soccer field:  "Fok America! Fok America!"

   "This guy needs a lesson in pronunciation," I say to George. "It's fuck, amigo, not 'fok'. As in fuck you too!"

   But in general, people are quite friendly, and George scored a dirt-cheap room in a guesthouse hotel on a residential street where an all-Cuban band of young partyers gather in a basement club to dance each night. Music, dance, and house parties are what defines and elevates Cuba beyond its poverty.  Every night, another party -- and music everywhere you go.  Mostly jazz or salsa...

  Tourists receive a royal reception in Cuba because of the dollars they bring. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early '90s and stopped sending Cuba its welfare checks, Fidel Castro legalized U.S. dollars as currency in order to keep his regime afloat.

   Today, every tourist from every land — Canada, France, Germany — is required to bring U.S. dollars to this tropical worker's paradise, or to purchase special "tourist" pesos in dollars. I cashed in a single buck for 10 pesos as a scrapbook souvenir and spent U.S. dollars the entire time.

   In the parlance of the U.S. State Department, I was "trading with the enemy" when I bought a conga drum for the ridiculously low price of $20. But let me tell you, amigos, trading with the enemy never felt so good. In Havana there is a fabulous artists market and an upscale tourist zone in the colonial heart of the city.  Then too, you can prowl Hemingway's old haunts, stroll the Malecon path for miles along the sea, and spend days photographing the limpid watercolor buildings of the faded city.

   Dollars move people to do strange things.  Well-dressed men haunt the street corners of Havana, hoping to sell you a $10 cigar.  And no wonder, since during our visit in 2000, the average Cuban subsisted on a monthly check of about $15.

  There are also swarms of prostitutes; I got the impression that sex is such a casual matter in Cuba that freelancing with a foreigner for extra cash doesn't have much of a stigma. Nor do Cuban women seem to have much faith in marriage or the fidelity of their husbands.

   But most of the jineteras we met seemed like vulnerable kids, rather than savvy businesswomen. On our way to the Bay of Pigs, George and I picked up two women hitchhikers in their early 20s -- as skinny as cats with kittenish faces -- and then had to try explaining to them in fractured Spanish why we didn't want to spend the weekend wining and dining them in Cuba's popular rent-a-girlfriend tradition.  Days later, we were dancing with some women less than half our age at the outdoor bar scene on Havana's waterfront and my dance partner suggested we go to her momma's place and get it on.  Call me old-fashioned, but there was no way in hell I was going to walk into momma's house and bang her little angel 20-year-old daughter behind a curtain or whatever.  I gave her $10 for the salsa lesson and called it good, albeit feeling stricken with guilt for spoiling the night's fun on the silent cab ride back to the hotel.


BEFORE THE REVOLUTION

   When you understand how the Cuban people suffered under dictator Fulgencio Batista before the Revolution, you can appreciate how far these folks have come without a speck of help from the United States — indeed they've achieved miracles in the face of our country trying to starve them out of existence. Miracles even though Fidel Castro visited Washington, D.C. during the '50s and begged for our help for his people, only to be turned down flat.

   "Few countries were headed by so greedy or cruel a dictator as Batista," writes journalist David Halberstam in his book, "The Fifties." At the Bay of Pigs Museum in Playa Giron, you can see photos of what the peasant's life was like under Batista'sdictatorship. As illiterate farmhands cutting sugarcane in the virtual slavery of the plantation owners, people lived liked animals for generations.

   The revolution brought the Cuban people universal education and free health care, cultural programs, music, sports and buses. And speaking of a third world communist country, I was flabbergasted to find a divided highway down the center of Cuba is on par with a U.S. freeway, albeit with the occasional brahma bull pulling an oxcart down the side of the road.  We rented a Toyota and were free to drive wherever we wished.

   Cuba certainly has its problems. At our hotel for instance, there was no toilet seat and the water runs only half the time at best. Then there's horrendous smog, a government-controlled press, economic desperation, and indignities to human rights (nothing looks grimmer than a Cuban prison). Why else would people like the mother of Elian Gonzalez risk their lives to travel 90 miles of open sea on flimsy rafts?

    Yet by the look of things, the nations of the world are thumbing their noses at the U.S. embargo, because the Spanish are building hotels like crazy and airlines from around the world (except those of the U.S.) flies in an out of Jose Marti Airport in Havana.

   Ironically, a Cubana Airlines flight from Montreal takes you over the length of the entire eastern United States on the trip to Havana. You have to fly over your own

country to travel to Canada in order to get home from Cuba.  So if our government sincerely believes that Cuba is a threat to our country, then what's to stop the Cubans from bombing New York?


   Hazards, dangers, cautions: The envy of the have-nots against the haves is readily apparent in Cuba, so don't assume that everyone loves your rich, well-fed Western ass.  Havana and other Cuban cities are rife with prostitutes and dodgy characters looking for opportunities -- try not to be one -- as in, avoid stumbling around the (very) dark streets at night, drunk on too much rum.

   Remember also that Cuba remains a police state; even if you're a flaming liberal (like me), be sure to leave your romantic delusions at home.  We heard of one Canadian resident who was tossed in jail without charges in Havana and left to rot, denied even a phone call to his embassy.  Fortunately, security at the jail was so lax that he eventually just walked out the front door.


About the book...
   Warning: This book could cause your feet to wander...
   But if that's no problem, "pass the goat dick, please," and lean back for laughs and low adventures with "Planet Backpacker: The Good Life Bumming Around the World."
   The book by Robert Downes celebrates the backpacking lifestyle enjoyed by an estimated 100,000 travelers out wandering around the world at any given moment.
   'Backpacking' is a style of travel that involves using native transportation, staying in local digs (guest houses, hostels, pensiones), and visiting exotic destinations on the cheap.  In America, 'backpacking' tends to mean a backcountry camping experience, but in Australia and Europe it more commonly refers to the kind of trip that college kids take during their gap year.
   Increasingly, backpacking is a passion for travelers of all ages, and certainly the best way to see the world at the lowest cost.
   In 2007, Downes set off on a solo trip around the world, biking across Europe on a mountain bike and backpacking on through Eastern Europe, Egypt, India, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia.  The resulting book got its start as a blog, written one excerpt at a time in more than 100 of the grubbiest internet cafes on the planet.
   Downes notes that backpacking around the world is one of the last epic adventures possible for the average person to achieve.  'Planet Backpacker' offers plenty of hard-earned wisdom on that score, along with advice on how to make your own trip a success.

Click on the logo to order 'Planet Backpacker: The Good Life Bumming Around the World" from Amazon Kindle -- $4.99 for the illustrated ebook.
Click on the logo to order 'Planet Backpacker: The Good Life Bumming Around the World' as an Apple iBook from iTunes.  With more than 75 illustrations, $4.99.