Havana!

I flew into Havana via Houston. The process wasn’t difficult, and after waiting for a short period I had the necessary documents to enter Cuba: the travelers insurance and tourist card, both required by the Cuban government.

The flight down was longer than expected. From Houston we flew directly across the Gulf of Mexico, so most of the trip was over blue water. It wasn’t until we were right above the island that anything changed.

Not surprisingly, the water was very blue. The flight path didn’t take us over any special beaches, but the bottom of the ocean was easily seen, even the geomorphology of the reefs. Also, and this was surprising, it was quite easy to see entirely across the island. Cuba is a very narrow, or short island, so being able to see 100 to 200 miles was entirely sufficient to see the Atlantic and Caribbean sides at the same time.

After customs and a 1/2 hour taxi ride, I was in Havana, walking around. My first sites were nearly exactly what you’d see from photos of other people’s trips. Old buildings, people in the streets, old cars. How cool!

It’s tempting to put all of the photos here, but it’s better if you go to the photo gallery.

There were lots of cool old cars 😀

And it was really easy to find good music to dance to.

Havana is also right on the ocean, although there is no beach there, so it was easy to take photos of beautiful beach scenery and the pig roasts that take place just across from the Malecon (boardwalk).

The food in Havana was good. I ate a lot of seafood and even the bbq pork. Had to get a Cuban sandwich! One funny moment was when the bbq pork vendor was right next to the piña colada vendor. The sandwiches were on a generic bread (more on this later) with just pork and drippings poured over it. Of course it was good, but I was eyeballing the pineapple next door, so I asked if I could get a slice of pineapple for the sandwich, which seemed to confuse both vendors. They did acquiesce, and I got a pulled pork sandwich with pineapple and pork drippings, which I think made the sandwich much better. Somehow I found myself paying more than the total of a sandwich + a piña colada, so the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – DOH! Perhaps this will give the locals an idea, and next time I visit there will be new sandwich shops with more than one filler!

About the bread. I’m convinced that communism has been played to its natural conclusion there. In 11 days I ate bread every day, and every day it was the same, whether it be on the west end of the island or 700 miles away on the east coast. The only thing that changed was the shape of the bread (some rolls were rectangular, but most were square). My guess is that the government has installed bakeries (of which I saw several) and that the bread is prescribed, meaning every bakery must make the one type of bread. No independent bakeries seem to exist, so everyone eats what the government gives them. If you walk around Havana or Santa Clara or Santiago at night, you’ll see bakeries pumping out thousands of identical rolls in preparation for the next day. It’s possible to get them hot out of the oven. The rolls cost only a few cents each, but don’t look for variety. You won’t find it.

We have an image of Cuban food in the US. It involves fried plantains and sandwiches stacked with 3 or 5 types of meat. Don’t expect to find either. The sandwiches tended to be either pulled pork or ham. Once I got a sandwich with ham and a cucumber. That was a rare improvement.

To my surprise, I didn’t see a single plantain in 11 days even though every morning I was served a platter of local, delicious, ripe fruit. Occasionally I did get fried bananas for a side at dinner, and I saw banana trees everywhere, but there seem to be no plantain trees on the island. More on the delicious fruit later!

Now for some of my other favorite photos from Havana.

That last photo is an important one. Private Wifi doesn’t exist in Cuba, but every city I visited had at least one Wifi hotspot. No where else I went had it, even the wealthy B&B owners (if you can call them that). You had to find a government kiosk, usually near to the park, and buy internet cards, similar to phone cards in the US. Connecting was not always straightforward, and sometimes I had to try for 15 or so minutes just to connect. This of course had several effects. One was that the parks became a sort of zombie playground where hundreds of people (at night, or tens in the day) would hang out looking at their phones. The other effect was that I got over using the internet very quickly. Since it sometimes required a taxi ride and sitting in the rain just to check my email, I had to really want to connect to make it worth while. The same must be true for Cubans, and I didn’t see a single person texting and driving!

Cuba!

I just got back from an 11 day trip to Cuba. It was a fantastic experience, and I learned so much. I plan to go into more details, but this is an introductory post to get started.

It’s impossible to talk about Cuba without first mentioning the people. Nowhere else I’ve been have the people been so warm, friendly, and open. Everyone was great to talk to, and they welcomed me into their houses like we were old friends. I stayed at Bed and Breakfasts the whole time, so I saw a lot of homes and met a lot of families, but complete strangers invited me to have coffee with them or meet their family. It’s hard to imagine that happening in the US, Europe, or Japan.

Another thing that was striking is the total lack of violence in Cuba. Of course they have no firearms, those were basically outlawed decades ago. But I felt totally comfortable walking down poorly lit streets at night in poor neighborhoods. There are a lot of poor neighborhoods; no one in Cuba is rich, but that lack of income disparity probably has an affect on the way people behave. Even little kids or teenage girls walked around a night. American parents won’t let their kids do that in the day in the suburbs!

Cubans are poor, and they know it, but they sure are happy. Maybe it’s the weather or the delicious fruit, but the warmth and openness were sincere. They love to dance and sing. They wear bright colors and drive old cars. It’s such a romantic place and totally captivating.

I, as a visitor, represented a source of income for them. Their economy isn’t strong for many things. They do have a fantastic education system and medical system, so there is some medical tourism, but overall tourists are the livelihood for many people. Most of my encounters with locals were through the B&Bs, tours, classes, and taxis. I took a lot of taxis. They’re the most efficient and reliable way to get around – even between cities.

One type of taxi is the “taxi collectivo” in which 3-5 to 12 strangers going to the same place get into a car and ride with a driver. Usually these cars are 60 years old, and they aren’t especially comfortable, but the ride sharing aspect saves a lot of money. They cost about the same as a bus but leave at reasonable hours and take half as much time.

You can also get personal taxis within a city (cheap), between cities (expensive), or for a whole day (fixed rate depending on what you want to do). The drivers really love the last option. They get a guaranteed fare and spend a lot of time waiting. They all complained about boredom while waiting, but not driving saves them a lot of gas, and as I learned later, they have to pay for all of their own repairs. So, making money for not driving is best for them.

I plan to talk about the places I visited more in future posts, but here are some of my favorite photos from the trip.


Old taxis waiting to give a ride; Old men singing in the street, and me eating coconut ice cream from a coconut.


Photos from a horseback tour I took through tobacco and coffee plantations and the Viñales Valley National Park.


Highlights from Cuba would be incomplete without photos of dogs on roofs. Capturing them on film became a fun goal. Sadly, the majority I saw were from a car, and the photos didn’t turn out well, or I was too slow.


Some other fun shots from the national park and then Santiago de Cuba, in the southeast.

Finally, a trip to Cuba would not be complete without visiting the tomb of their country’s founder. Santiago de Cuba was the site of the beginning of their revolution, and they buried him there after a country long procession where millions came out to say goodbye.

There is so much more: cigar rolling classes, dancing classes, a SCUBA refresher course, and cooking classes, not to mention all of the Spanish I got to relearn. It’s been almost 10 years since I spoke Spanish on a regular basis. I was glad that it came back so quickly. At the end of the trip I had no trouble communicating, and my recollection of Spanish words was good enough that I gave my Spanish/English dictionary to one of my B&B hosts who was trying to learn English.

 

More soon!

April

Things are going well. After the onslaught of deadlines and presentations in February and March, I’ve been able to get back into a more regular schedule of work.   I also have more free time now, so I’m trying to do more things in Denver, like see comedy shows and take classes. It’s been nice getting out more.

February was brutal

I sure am glad to see February gone. It’s hard to explain how much work goes into writing a NASA grant proposal to someone who hasn’t done it, but many people say it takes a month to write. I submitted two last week. Thankfully, one had some legacy from last year’s (unfunded) submission, and a lot of time was saved because of that.

For some reason, the powers that be decided to hold a Mars specific conference on the same exact day as the proposal deadline for my Mars proposals, and I traveled to California to speak there.  Those things in combination were pretty bad, but one might guess that I would get a break afterwards. Instead, I had two deadlines for today. One was a paper I wrote with a colleague in France. He also submitted one as first author and asked me to provide comments. The other deadline was a presentation to my work colleagues, one that is a precursor to a presentation that I’ll give later in March.

Finally, though, all of those things have passed, and I can breath. Tonight I’m celebrating with a home cooked steak dinner, which is a step up from eating dinner at my desk or getting taco bell to go. Goodbye working late hours! And welcome the sun. I can’t wait for Daylight Savings Day – the best day of the year!  Then I’ll be able to enjoy evening activities that require daylight 🙂

Some new things

Lately I’ve been pretty busy with work. Research is going well, and I’m knee deep in three manuscripts on top of my other job duties. I was also teaching until yesterday. I finally submitted grades, and this semester is over. I’ll miss teaching. Next semester was looking to be too busy applying for grants (and hopefully getting a job interview!), so I decided to not over stress myself. Of course I’m applying for jobs. This is one of the coolest of the year.

I’ve got my fingers crossed for that one, but it feels good even being qualified for a faculty job there!

 

I’ve also been skiing with Katie. This will be our third weekend in a row to go out We’re headed to Steamboat Springs. It’s supposed to be cold, but I invested a lot of money in this, and I want to maximize my experience. 🙂

 

Long time waiting for an update

I’ve been so neglectful here, but there is good reason. Since my last post (in Sicily!) I’ve been terribly busy. After Sicily I went to Rome for a week of work. Upon returning I immediately started prepping for my 5 day per week astronomy course at CU. That was a blast, but it consumed all of my free time. Then it was August, and August meant moving – both the office and the apartment. Than and I left SwRI to join PSI. PSI opened a new branch for us in Lakewood, CO, and it’s wonderful. I couldn’t be happier with the facility. The view from my office is fantastic, and my office itself is enormous!

I do miss working with a larger group of people. Hopefully one day this office grow.

So, August was a mess. Not only was I adapting to the new office (and commuting 40 minutes each way), I began packing and moved to Denver. Pictures of the new apartment are coming. I’m still trying to get it situated. Why, you might ask, haven’t I gotten it done? The end of August was more than 7 weeks ago. Well, I also ran a conference in Iceland! As soon as I got my furniture in place at the new apartment I flew to Iceland with Katie. We enjoyed some field trips (pictures to come), and I convened a conference with 102 people from 11 countries. It was an amazing experience, deserving of its own writeup.

Lately, I’ve been teaching at Regis again, and trying to catch up with the major changes at the new office. Currently we’re trying to get our servers and file systems to work again. They were moved from SwRI two weeks ago, and not everything is running yet.

Well, this is a fast update, but I feel better about getting something down.

My Lunch

Yes, I just ate bread with cheese and salami on a Sicilian beach. Yes, I accompanied that with olives and a nectarine. Yes, I’m about to go swimming in crystal clear blue water and take a nap under an umbrella. Yes!

Pretty Awesome Day

Today was great. I woke up late but still had time to enjoy many of the things that LA has to offer. After successfully running the glacier model (the main point of this trip). I headed out to LACMA, or the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It was recommended to me by Akili, a buddy from France, and his recommendation couldn’t have been better. The art was excellent, and it took me to a really cool part of LA. I met up with some people that I met at a bbq last night. Keith, a fellow motorcycle rider I met while on a road trip through Glacier National Park, invited me to eat brisket with him and other guests. This was superb and really gave me the fix I needed from being away from home. Well, his friends Chris and Taylor are art connoisseurs, and they were excited to have someone join them. They left me in the afternoon, and I found myself in Little Ethiopia, so I said why not get some Ethiopian food? I had never had it before, and now seemed like the best time.

The Ethiopian food was excellent, and while eating I had to decide on what to do next, so Yelp came in handy because it told me about a big flea market that’s only open on Sundays. It also reminded me about improv theater, from Upright Citizen’s Brigade and the Griffith Observatory. My afternoon and evening were planned! The flea market was fun, and I picked up some things for Katie. Hopefully she likes them. After that I headed to the theater and got in line. Sunday’s 7PM show is free, and people were already lining up when I got there at 5.

I met a nice couple and their friend, and we chatted the time away. Seeing live comedy was something I had been excited about before coming here, and it didn’t disappoint. Finally, it was dark, and I could head to the observatory. Griffith observatory is no longer active in research, but it is a fantastic place and highly respected for its public events. Tonight was a special night too, with Mars being the closest it’s been since 2003 and a nearly full moon, so lots of people were there. I was extremely lucky because I was the last person in line to see Mars. An employee got behind me and sent a lot of people a way. But I did get to see it  and the northern ice cap! Finally I’m ‘home’ and still excited enough to share some pictures with the internet.

A fun view with the observatory, the moon, and Mars above them both.

Again with the moon, Mars and Los Angeles. Also, you can see Saturn between Mars and the moon. It’s not as bright, but it’s equally as cool.

Finally, I want to make a special note to how awesome it is having a motorcycle in LA. It’s basically a super power. Five times today I pulled up to something cool (LACMA, Ethiopian restaurant, flea market, UCB, and the Griffith Observatory) and five times today I parked exactly in front of the venue. It’s almost impossible to be closer than I was. We call this ‘Rockstar Parking’ and motorcycles are the best. So here’s to Blue 🙂

Getting ready to ride

I’m headed to California on Wednesday. In preparation I’ve done some maintenance on the motorcycle. I’ve replaced changed the oil, spark plugs, and air filter. I replaced the rear brake pads and had a new chain installed. One day I’ll teach myself how to do that. The tires are good and should get me there and back with some extra. One worry is the seat, which has cracked in places, leaving the potential for a wet butt if it gets rained on, but I’ll likely be wearing rain pants in that eventuality.  In doing all this maintenance, I learned that one of my allen wrenches was missing, a very important one, so I’ve replaced that and also picked up a new spark plug wrench. The old one lost its rubber and was only half effective.

Now that the bike is ready, I’ll start packing for the trip. It’s a little awkward because I have to prepare for snow and cold weather until I get past Colorado. Then it’s Mojave Desert where they’re already hitting 90°. The return trip in June won’t be as cool!

The riding part of this trip is for personal pleasure, but the trip itself is for work. I’ll be at JPL hopefully learning how to model ice sheets. The goal is to extend my skill set and answer some fundamental science questions at the same time. If it works out, I won’t be just a Mars ice + radar person. I’ll be able to answer questions on other planet too 🙂

Now if it would just stop snowing….

Big Changes

Some big things are happening around here. The biggest is that my job and affiliation are going to change soon. In the next couple of months I’ll transition to the Planetary Science Institute. The move is part of my boss’s plan. Some of it is sad. I like where I work now and all of the people with whom I work. It’s been a great environment for learning new things and starting collaborations. After the transition it will be the two of us, at least at first.  I’ll still be able to come back to Southwest, but my office won’t be mine, and I’ll be a visitor.

This is happening very quickly, mostly because I have a lot of travel coming up. So I have to pack up my office very soon and store things at home. The travel is good though. I’ll be at JPL for 4 weeks learning about ice sheet modeling. This will hopefully prepare me for papers and proposals related to ice sheets. Before and after JPL I’ll be in Baltimore and then Rome. I’m gone more than 6 weeks out of the next 7! Of course this makes my transition more stressful. Wish me luck!