Monday, March 21, 2016

Fun with Fitness: Cuba Prep

Last summer my partner and I jumped at the chance to see the Buena Vista Social Club on their farewell tour.  The show was so good that about a month later we saw them again and invited two of our friends to come with us.  Little did we know, a few months later, out of the blue, these same friends would  invite us to join them on a trip to Cuba.  We decided that day that we had to take advantage of this opportunity and go with them.  Three short months later we found ourselves in the amazing time capsule that is Cuba.
Our first step was to research everything we could.  Even in this information day and age, that proved to be a lot tougher than we expected.  The following article is a compilation of a bunch of the stuff that we learned on our trip.

One of the first things we did was to check on our passports.  My passport was due to expire a few days after our projected return date.  I wanted to make sure I had a better cushion than that.  In fact, a little more research led us to find out that according to the U.S. Department of State "U.S. Citizens traveling on passports that expire in fewer than six months have increasingly been denied airline boarding or been detained upon arrival in certain foreign destinations."  I didn't want to be kept from entering the country or get stuck not being able to leave the country.  My passport took about 6 weeks to arrive.

My partner and I used the Lonely Planet Cuba Travel Guide.  This guidebook was a great source of  information.  Our planning was a bit of whirlwind.  Reading through this book a bit more closely beforehand could've helped us to make the most out of our trip.  One helpful section in the book has travel plans based on the length of stay.  One thing the book didn't have though, were large city maps.  It only had maps of neighborhoods, which brings me to the next item on the list.

When traveling to Cuba, bring along anything that you think you might need.  Don't count on being able to buy it there.  Bring along both print maps and download PDF maps to your phone.  We did not have cell service or GPS.  There is wifi service available in some hotels, restaurants and bars, but it is spotty and unreliable.  To access the wifi we had to buy scratch cards and enter the code into our web browsers.  The cards worked for others in my party with the same model phone, but never worked for mine.

Other Useful Items to Bring
Again, if you think you'll need it, bring it.  Here is a short list of items we found or would've found useful.
  Toilet paper and Kleenex travel packs
  Bug Spray
  Spanish English Dictionary
  Cigar accessories (check on TSA regulations for traveling with lighters)
  Outlet travel adapter European 110/220
  Rain Poncho
  Plastic Baggies/Dry Bags
  Copies of Passports, Credit Cards, Health Insurance Cards and Emergency Contact Info
  Copies of all Reservations
  American (or your country of origin) Embassy address and phone number
  Toiletries (pretty hard to come by, especially feminine products)
  First Aid Kit and Meds including pain killers, Nausea/Vomitting/Diarrhea, probiotics, etc
  Wet naps including the camp shower ones (our hotel lost hot water and then all water intermittently)
  Hand Sanitizer
  Rechargeable battery packs
  Comfortable Walking/Hiking Shoes
  Pens, Pencils, Sketch Pad and Journal
  Waterproof camera or phone case
  Travel bag with cut proof strap
  Day bag
  MOLLE Web Dominators
  Nalgene Collapsible Flask
  Extra Suitcase or Expandable Suitcase
  Deck of Cards and Travel Games
  Flip Flops/Slippers
  Kindle and/or Books
  Poster tube for bringing back art and paintings

*A Note on Bringing Things Back
At the time of our trip we were allowed to bring back $100 per person of Cuban Ccigars and alcohol combined.  We had to have receipts for everything and make sure that the cigars were sealed in their original box with the factory hologram.  Cuban cigars imported from other countries are still not allowed through US Customs.  The Customs agents asked if I had proof that I had been to Cuba.  When entering Cuba they stamped my Visa instead of my passport.  On the way back out of Cuba they collected the Visa.  Luckily, I had saved my airplane ticket stub as a keepsake.  They still checked the cigar box very closely to make sure it hadn't been opened before they let me continue on my way.  Receipts and documentation is also required for artwork if it has cultural or historical significance.

Learn Spanish
A While back I travelled to Thailand.  I spent months learning as much Thai as I could before the trip.  Once there, most people's English was much better than my Thai.  I figured things would probably be the same and that I could get by on my four years of grade school Spanish and medical Spanish background.  Yeah, not so much.  English is not a commonly spoken language in Cuba.  Many of my conversations quickly devolved into Spanglish and Charades.

Learn Cuban History
As an American, I don't think about Cuba on a daily basis.  For Cubans however, the impact of the embargo has had far reaching impacts into their lives and is something that is ever present in their minds.  While most seemed Cubans seemed optimistic about more American tourists coming to Cuba and very optimistic about President Obama's upcoming visit, this is something that which Americans need to be aware.   Also be aware that you will see Anti-American and Anti-embargo billboards.

Learn the Different Currencies
Cuba has two different currencies, the Convertible Peso (CUC) and the Cuban Peso (CUP) also know as Moneda Nacional (MN).  The CUC has an exchange rate of 1:1 with both the US dollar and the Euro.  The MN has an exchange rate of 24 to one CUC.  We had a brief moment where we thought we had $75 worth of CUC when we actually had $75 worth of MN or about $3..
Another point to note on currencies US credit cards are just now starting to be accepted in Cuba (we never saw anywhere that took them on our trip) and there are few and far between places to exchange money.  Even fewer places that will exchange US dollars and they routinely charge a 20% transaction fee on exchanging US dollars.  We converted $1500 into Euros for the two of us and brought that in cash with us for 7 days in Cuba.
Be sure to get smaller denominations of bills and coins for tipping.  There are plenty of opportunities to tip servers and musicians in Cuba.  Keep in mind that most people there earn about $20 a month so a little bit goes a long way.  And if you tip at the usual American rates you will burn through your cash on hand very quickly and might not know when you'll have another chance to exchange money.  Don't exchange money with people on the street. Sometimes even banks have been know to cheat people.  We found hotel lobbies to be the best place to exchange money.
During our trip we used 5 different currencies: US dollars, Euros, Mexican Pesos, CUC and MN.  Yes, that was confusing.  We downloaded an exchange rate app before our trip which proved to be quite helpful.

Travel Agents and Visas
We went through a Mexican travel agent.  The benefits of this were that she was able to get our Visas right away and our hotels and tours were booked before we got there.  Because of this we didn't have to carry as much cash into the country.  The travel agent also arranged for taxi drivers to tour us around all day for some of our tours.  We've also heard cases of  people applying in the US for Visas to Cuba and waiting for months with no word on if they've been approved or not.
The other side of this particular was communication was an issue at times.  For instance, my name was misspelled on my plane ticket, which caused a little bit of headache getting into and out of Cuba.

Be Prepared for Things to Not Make Sense
We were told that after we landed in Cuba there would be someone from the travel agency that would be waiting for us with a sign with our name on it.  We went outside, searched all around and didn't see anyone.  Our cell phones of course didn't work, but there were pay phones.  We asked the staff at the airport about them and they responded that we needed a card to use the pay phones, but they didn't sell the cards at the airport.
At our hotel our room was on the 16th floor.  The elevator would forget what floors were pressed as soon as the doors opened, meaning that someone else on a different floor could hijack your elevator if you didn't re-press your floor soon enough.  There were no numbers on the floors, so we had to run around the hallway to check the room numbers and back to elevator before the doors closed.  We got tired of playing elevator roulette and two of us decided to take the stairs down.  Again the floors weren't marked and the bottom three floors were blocked off.
For the flight back we arrived at the airport 2 hours early.  We should've arrived 3 hours early.  As we checked in and got my name and ticket all sorted out I checked and saw that there were three flights to Cancun and ours was the last one, scheduled to leave at 4:40 pm and was on time.  We went through Customs and Immigration which took about an hour and then went up to our gate to wait for our flight.  There was a flight scheduled to leave for Cancun at the gate next to ours, one hour before that was loading.  As we watched that one load, we thought it was a little odd that no one was waiting  at our gate.  As my partner got up to check on our flight, the flight attendant at the next gate over asked if we were going to Cancun.  We said yes, but that we were on the next flight.  She said were on that flight and that it was the last flight to Cancun that day.  We double checked our tickets and indeed we were now on the earlier flight.  The counter attendant who had been super helpful with getting my name sorted out, hadn't mentioned that we were on a different flight.  There was no announcement nor did anyone page us over the loudspeaker. We were the last ones aboard the plane, which took off about 10 minutes later.  If we had missed our flight, we would've been stuck in the airport and overstayed our visa.

Cuba is an incredible place that I highly recommend visiting.  If you're planing a trip check back here again because I'll be updating this article with links and pictures as well as writing other articles about  the trip itself.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Adventure Preparedness Training

Triple Aught Design (TAD) is one of the Bay Area's own premier gear companies.  Their stuff has a unique blend of style and durability.  Back in 2011 I wrote a review of their Artemis Hoodie after field testing it during the first World's Toughest Mudder.  The wool sweater not only helped me to stave off hypothermia, but after after a quick wash came out looking like new.

TAD is now expanding their line up from gear and apparel to courses and seminars that will help you get through your next adventure.  Two of their courses coming up over the next few months are their Wilderness First Aid Course and their Field Forecasting Course.

Over spring break in college I took a Wilderness First Responder Course (Wil Fir).  I worked my way through college as a Wildland Firefighter operating in some pretty remote areas.  Some areas were only accessible by rappelling from a helicopter

The work was arduous and at times dangerous.


The Wil Fir course seemed like a good set of skills to have.  I instantly fell in love with this course.  It taught us how to improvise and be mini MacGyvers.  I loved it so much that I went on to become a Wilderness EMT and a Wilderness First Aid Instructor.

Wilderness Medicince picks up where normal First Aid Course leave off. When we're in the city we know that help is just a phone call and a few minutes away.  In the wilderness help could be hours or days away and with limited supplies.  We learned how to make splints out of everything from tree branches to magazines or whatever happened to be on hand.  While this course is a great idea for any who works or plays in the outdoors, it's also a good knowledge to have in general.  

While most of the time we can call 911 when needed, in the event of a major disaster or emergency emergency  responders can become tied up very quickly.  FEMA's Community Emergency Response Team Program recommends that neighborhoods should be able to be self sufficient for 72 hours after a major emergency.  That might be how long it takes for emergency responders to be able to respond to some areas.

The Wilderness First Aid course is held over two days, June 7 & 8, 2014.  You can find out more info and register for it here.

Just as good as having Wilderness Medicine knowledge, is knowing how to avoid situations where you would have to use this  knowledge.  In Wildland Firefighting we lived by the up to the minute weather reports.  Up to date knowledge of the weather helped to keep us out of some very dangerous situations.  This is also true for anyone who spends time in the outdoors.  Should you keep forging ahead on your hike or should you turn back?  Will this be a pleasant stroll through the woods or will it end hypothermia.  This is where TAD's Field Forecasting class comes in.  

The Field Forecasting class is taught by Meteorologist Jim Woodmencey who teaches avalanche and high risk weather forecasting to US Military Special Operations Command Personnel.  Do you ever find yourself in places where you can't access your weather app?  Cell phone battery out of juice?  This class will give you the skill set recognize and predict weather patterns for yourself.  In it you'll learn 

  • Introductory Meteorology: Knowledge of the atmosphere, barometric pressure, orographics, cloud identification and storm systems
  • Weather Forecasting: Interpreting satellite / radar images and utilizing weather maps
  • Tool Proficiency & Utilization: Developing expertise in the use of your five senses in addition to barometers and altimeters

The Field Forecasting Class is being held May 31, 2014 and June 1, 2014. You can find out more info and register for the class here

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Fun with Fitness: Kauai Day 6

We started out day 6 by heading out to the Opaekaa Falls which are one of the most accessible major falls on the island.  This waterfall is only about 5 minutes off of the main road and easily well worth the trip.

Directly across from the falls is a great view of the Wailua River Valley along with plenty of the local chickens that were taking in the scenery along with us.

Next we drove around the coast to one of my all time favorite hiking trails, the Kalalau Trail.  We had an amazing overview of this trail on Day 3 by land, Day 4 by helicopter, and Day 5 by speed boat.

The road to the North Shore is marked by amazing sights both off the coast and inland.  This is an inland cave next to the main highway.  The white residue on the walls is salt, evidence that this cave was carved from the rock by towering waves, pounding the shore. 

The road winds north around the island until it ends at Ke'e Beach.  This beach is sheltered by a reef and often provides calm swimming and snorkeling, but as always check the local surf reports before entering the water.  

Ke'e Beach serves as the trailhead for the Kalalau Trail.

The trail starts of steep and rocky and rarely lets up.  Under normal conditions it can also be quite slippery in some sections, making for pretty challenging climbing.

Sweeping ocean views  pop up after less than 1/2 a mile of hiking and continue over the next several miles.

Two miles in is my all time favorite beach, Hanakapi'i.  The trail stretches for 11 miles, but this is as far as you can hike without a permit.  One of the many reasons I love this beach is because the view looking up the canyon is of a river descending down from steep, jagged cliffs and feeding into the Pacific.

And of course we ended the day with another amazing sunset back at Ke'e Beach.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Fun with Fitness: Kauai Day 5

Day 5 marked the third way in which we would tour the Napali Coast.  we got up early that morning to take a boat tour/snorkeling trip around the western side of the island.

 The boats the company uses are the rigid hull inflatable zodiac boats.  I like being right next to the water in these boats, sitting on the sides.  We came across several pods of dolphins that came up and swam right along side of us.

As we continued along the coast the crew guided us into several sea caves that had been showcased in movies such as Pirates of the Caribbean.

If you look at the 5th picture from the previous post you can see the aerial view of this cave that we had the day before.

The last time I took one of these tours along the coast it was just the boat ride.  This time we stopped off and toured the Nu'alolo Kai State park for a quick hike through the area before snorkeling.  This area is only accessible by boat and only tour companies with special permits can dock here.

The Nu'alolo Kai area is the remnants of a sheltered fishing village that was inhabited continuously for 800 years from the 12th to 20th centuries.  It is accessible only by boat and is bordered by sheer cliffs rising over 1000' directly out of the beach.

After a quick lunch including a few cocnuts found on the beach, we hopped into the warm ocean waters and snorkeled for a bit.

This pic shows the effect training for Pavel's Bodyweight Certification course had on my back.

Once we returned to town we toured the local shops and galleries of Hanapepe and the "Western most book store in the United States."

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Fun with Fitness: Kauai Day 4

Day 4 was a pretty incredible day on the island. Since less than 20% of Kauai is accessible by car the saying goes that "visiting Kauai and not seeing it by air is like going to the Sistine Chapel and not looking up." I used to work for the US Forest Service as a wildland firefighter helicopter rappeller. In the course of my job I was paid to fly over and rappel into places such as Mt Whitney, the southern Sierra Nevadas, and the Nevada high desert. Helicopter tours on Kauai are so incredible, that even with this background, I have gladly paid for helicopter tours both times I've been to Kauai.

We woke up early Sunday morning to once again head down to the south side of the island. Both times I've flown with Inter-Island Helicopters for a few reasons. The first time I flew with them they also served as the Fire Rescue contract helicopter for Kauai, making them pretty near and dear to my heart. They fly with the doors off, which for me is really the only way to fly. And they fly the fast MD500 Hughs helicopters. Think Magnum P.I. or the "Little Birds" from Blackhawk Down.

This time I paid a little more for a private tour and ended up on the smaller Robinson R44 helicopter. I was a little ambivalent on this one, because the MD is like the ferrari of helicopters - quick and just plain bad ass looking. The R44 looks like something out of a cute little anime cartoon. The woman at the counter assured me that she had her reservations about little ship when they first got it. Once she flew in it and realized that the windows were much bigger, making it better for pictures, she gained a new appreciation for it. And when it was in the air, it flew just the same as the bigger ship. It fast became her favorite helicopter.

We sat through a quick safety briefing, strapped our life jackets on and were led out to the awaiting helicopter, which was all spooled up and ready to go. Our pilot, Conrad, introduced himself, made sure we were all situated, then lifted up and banked around to the right as we took off into the air.

First we flew over Waimeia Canyon which we had just been visiting the day before.

Conrad was an extremely knowledgeable tour guide and an great pilot. We soon got the feeling that even for someone that does this day in and day out for a living, he was having as much fun up here as we were.

Next we flew along the North Shore making for the second of four ways we'd experience the Napali Coast this trip. The first of which, the Kalalau Lookout and Pihea Trail, were also mentioned in the Kauai Day 3 post.

We continued along the coast flying over Tunnels Beach which we visited the first day.

From here we flew into the interior of the island. Kauai is home to literally the wettest place on earth. The 5,142' Mount Waialeale literally meaning "ripling water" or "overflowing water averages over 452 inches of rain a year and received a record setting 683 inches of rain. According to Conrad it rains 350 days, yet somehow we managed to catch it on one of those five days when it was clear allowing us to fly right into the shield volcano.

Shield volcanos are usually built almost entirely of lava flows and are so named because their profiles resemble a warrior's shield.

As we zig zagged through the canyons I became won over by the R44's nimbleness and the expansive open views it offered.

I used a GoPro camera with a wrist housing for most of the pics and video on this ride. Overall it worked out really well, but a a lot of my pictures did come out a bit off kilter due to not being able to sight the camera very well with it mounted on the wrist. Another issue that came up was about half way through the ride I noticed condensation on the inside of the case, obscuring the lens. I know now that when using the GoPro to make sure that the lens and lens cover are free of all smudges and that the case is completely dry inside before sealing the camera inside.

We then re-enacted the "Welcome to Jurassic Park" scene as we flew over Jurassic Falls.

We wound around the island a bit more, but before we knew it, it was time to head back to the helibase. We hopped off the little ship with ear to ear grins. Check out Conrad in the background throwing out a shaka.

Now, this might seem like a full day's adventures, but we had barely started for the day. When we landed, it wasn't even 0930 yet. We departed the helibase in search of fuel for the rest of the day (aka breakfast). We drove around a bit and happened upon the Kauai Coffee Company.

There we thermoses with free samples of the coffees on a table in the patio. I'm generally not a big coffee drinker. I drink my coffee black and save it for those times when I really need it such as working 48 hours straight on the line of a wildland fire. The Kauai Blue Mountain blend didn't give me the jitters that normal coffee does and was so incredibly smooth that I could see myself going there every morning for cup to start off the day. We went inside to get a full cup of coffee. A cheerful retiree named Chuck sold us cups for $1.50 each and then rounded us up for a tour of the plantation.

The tour takes about 15 minutes, is pretty interesting and informative and well worth it. Fueled up and energized we drove down the shore to Poipu Beach to snorkel with tropical chickens, fish and sea turtles.

Kauai chickens have no natural predators so they have flourished and are found just about everywhere on the island. They have interbred with other tropical birds leading to some very colorful combinations. Imagine a rooster with a peacock tail.

We hopped into the water to be greeted by a bunch of fish of different colors and sizes darting past us.

For most of the time we were out there a pair of sea turtles we hanging out in the shallow surf. The lifeguards were very diligent making sure all of us gave the turtles a wide berth and let them go about their business.

We swam until the early evening and then headed back over to Port Allen to end the day by watching yet another incredible sunset.