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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Planning a visit to Cuba? You better find a guy to help you

Planning a visit to Cuba? You better find a guy to help you
Steve Persall, Times Movie Critic
Wednesday, February 15, 2017 8:00am

Anyone traveling on their own in Cuba needs to "know a guy."

Could be a woman, but enterprising locals typically offer a guy.

Looking for a casa particular, a comfy room rented by friendly, licensed
homeowners? Someone knows a guy to make it happen.

Want to spin backward through time and Havana in a vintage automobile?
Guys arrange that, too. Our guy knew a guy who drove us to the hovel
where our accompanying friend's mother lived a half century ago, where a
distant yet welcoming relative lives today.

Such experiences aren't found in air-conditioned tour buses, packed with
strangers and pressed by scheduling. Gazing at one bus through Bar
Monserrate's window, past my $12 lobster lunch with live salsa band,
only confirmed our decision to do Cuba on our own over New Year's weekend.

Armed with two Southwest round-trip tickets (scored for $98 with
vouchers), my wife and I booked four nights ($700) at the all-inclusive
Hotel Tuxpan resort in Varadero, two hours outside Havana. We planned to
bookend that beachfront stay with two days touring Cuba's capital.

First step: finding a guy to handle our Havana requests. Fittingly, my
wife, Dianne, discovered an online source founded by a woman.

Cuba-Junky.com was started in 2000 by Netherlands resident Anja Verlaan,
after her first visit to Cuba. The website includes a questionnaire on
touring interests: Romance, sports or night life? Shopping, culture or
restaurants? How much walking do you mind? Answers are used to shape a
personal itinerary, along with any special requests like our friend's
heritage search.

The site linked us to Tino, a self-proclaimed "cynical romantic" living
in Havana for eight years. Tino is a brash Dutchman without regard for
Varadero's manicured resort scene. We spent an hour sipping rum in a
walkup apartment he's renovating, getting Tino's take on Cuba's essence,
much of it confirmed over the next few days along the island nation's
northern coastline.

We didn't pay Tino except by replacing the bottle we helped finish. Tino
gets a piece of any action he brokers. He handed us over to Miguel, an
affable driver for $20, patient with our language barrier. Suzanna, 19,
joined us, a student volunteering in order to polish her English. She
was stunned later by our $20 thank-you, a measure of Cuba's poverty and
gratitude for tourists.

Four hours touring in Miguel's 1954 Chevy included a stop at Parque John
Lennon and its bronze tribute to the late Beatle, while a street
festival offered music, produce and dressed hogs for New Year's Eve
roasting. We chose Old Havana's Obispo district for people watching,
rather than historical landmarks on limited time. Ernest Hemingway's
hangout, Floridita, was hectic; the Church and Convent of St. Francis of
Assisi calmed. Crumbling neighborhoods — our friend also found her
great-grandmother's residence — felt secure with Miguel and Suzanna leading.

Nightfall approached, Varadero awaited. Tino knew a guy who'd drive four
of us for $170, an average rate per person for the two-hour ride. Pipo
drives a Renault, one of the relatively few cars we saw in Cuba built in
the 21st century.

After farewell rum with Tino, we departed Havana for four days in Varadero.

We found other "guys" in Varadero, hotel employees offering extras for
back-end cuts. A lifeguard knew a driver for our return to Havana. We
ate beachside seafood for a peso per plate while others waited in line
for dubious hamburgers. A few ice cubes or a partial roll of toilet
tissue in Cuba's scarcity culture is worth an early tip, trust me.

Our friends spent their final night in a casa particular near Havana's
famed Malecón esplanade for $25 including coffee and a 4 a.m. wakeup
knock. Tino knew a guy with a shiny, finned Cadillac greener than envy
who arranged the layover on short, late-night notice.

Cuba-Junky.com offered a foothold in a foreign land, so close yet
mysterious after decades of embargoed mistrust. Tour buses can be
insulation against Cuba's dilapidated charm, its welcoming citizens and
vibrancy. It's a place we'll revisit, boots on the ground, as often as
possible, and why not?

I know a guy.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow
@StevePersall.

.If you go

Visiting Cuba

With commercial travel to the island widening this year, more and more
Americans are finding a way to visit. This is the first in a series of
occasional stories.

TRAVEL TIPS

Whether traveling on your own or with a tour, keep a few things about
Cuba in mind:

• U.S. cellular telephone service is spotty. My Sprint account wouldn't
connect, even with Wi-Fi rental. A friend's Verizon service worked fine.
Personally, after one day of cellular withdrawal, being disconnected was
a pleasure.

• Toilet seats aren't found on every commode in Cuba, even in hotels.
They break and are seldom replaced in a low-income society without
specialty stores. Take a supply of sanitary seat covers or prepare to hover.

• Also, toilet tissue is scarce. Packing your own is advised. Our hotel
provided only half a roll, which brings us to ...

• Pack a stash of travel-sized toiletries, shampoo, body lotions, etc.,
and use them as tips or gifts. Our hotel housekeeper left an extra
half-roll of toilet tissue after our gifts, mostly saved from previous
hotel stays.

• For tourists, at least, Cuban socialism works. Prices are cheap and
consistent. We never felt safer on vacation, in a place where offenders
won't get due process. (That also means visitors shouldn't step out of
line.) Citizens are poor and want your money but only after providing
value in return.

Source: Planning a visit to Cuba? You better find a guy to help you |
Tampa Bay Times -
http://www.tampabay.com/features/travel/planning-a-visit-to-cuba-you-better-find-a-guy-to-help-you/2313194
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