Monday, May 29, 2006


The fight is fixed - well at least that's what the folks at think. So I saw these strange posters as I was about to go into the Lincoln Tunnel and jumped on the website only to be thrown into the anti-ipod/apple world of things. Some of the points are well lets just say, well taken. The bashing of the ipod is a thing that I really can't get into. I've just bought my first ipod and so far so good. It's heaven! 30GB of hard drive space on one system! What more can I ask for. Video is great although I just really use the device for listening to music while I work out and walk the streets of New York. I can have ALL my music available to me whenever the mood hits or for my everchanging minute by minute fancy. I've evolved with just about every musical device, I grew up and I must admit, I missed the 8 track, I caught the walkman, and boy did I have my share of those. I thought it was shear genius with the CD player, but the changing of the CDs was kind of droll. I also thought it was so fab to have the walkman that did the auto reverse on tapes! Brilliant! Oh but as the clutter built up I just began to wonder if there wasn't a way to do away with all of it. And none too soon in stepped the ipod. Now I hesitated and missteped by buying the Rio (not enough space for my insatiable musical appetite) I got the Sandisk mini fm/mp3 player - I thought that was the answer to my prayers until I realized that 512MB was again a bump up from the Rio but still a joke. So I sucked it up, and put the Benjamins down and walked out with a my piece of heaven. 30GB, and my entire music collection in the palm of my hand! Who could ask for more. So to the naysayers at Idon't - my confusion is why complain. What is there to complain about. I don't have an Apple computer and certainly no one has forced the ipod on me, but there is no other device on the market right now that's has a lock like they do. And as for listening to radio. That in itself is a crock, who the hell wants to listen to that garbage and those stupid ads over and over again. Now we'll all make our own playlists and as the anti ads say - isolate, inundate and in the end drop out. Hey ido so lay off the ipod, I don't care what you plug into, as long as its not stupid radio, I think we need to give radio the finger anyway. I think instead of spending time beating up on the ipod the folks at idont should take their fury out on fm radio. Hummm maybe that's an idea, hold on...I'll be right back.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Cigar Hustle

No trip to Cuba; better yet Havana would be complete without the tourist encountering a cigar/paladero hustle. Well I thought that I was well schooled on the fake cigar hustle, but little did I know that it would creep up on me so subtle that I would almost not know what hit me. So here it was, in the middle of the downtown area looking for the Real Tobacco factory, to take a look at how the famous Cuban cigars are put together. Totally confused by the roundabout streets; we were approached by a "kindly" young fella, well dressed and well spoken in English. He asked if we were lost and I told him that we wanted to go to a cigar factory. He happily obliged to guide us to the factory, actually a better one - the Romeo & Julietta. Ok, off we went with our new guide. Into the hot sun, through the streets, people, cars, statues, buildings whizzed by in a dizzying maze as my suspicious husband and I tried to keep step with Ernesto. Ernesto, who claimed to be in the military and doing us a kind favor, told us that the cigar factories were expensive and that cigars could be had in "restaurants" and he knew just the one. I should've known from that statement. Yes this restaurant had been the favorite dining spot of one of the characters from the Buena Vista Social Club. See this was the set up. Ok, great. Yes the cigars were authentic, hologram sticker and all. I kept thinking, how nice of this guy to show us around but I could see from my husband's face, he wasn't buying none of it. Through the streets, in the hot ass sun, up and down all around, even stopped to by my husband a cane juice. He spoke in flawless English about the fact that Cubans aren't allowed to leave the country and got all into political talk. An M.O. that we would soon realize was an all too abundant set up in the city. Ok so back to the hustle. Before we knew it we made it down a street, Ernesto said this was the "restaurant", he knocked on the door and this small door opened into a lovely courtyard with rooms, a kitchen, phone and from what I could see, this was a paladero. The proprietress promptly turned on the jazz - I guess to set the mood. The "cigars" were laid out in the back and then it hit home, I got it! This was all an elaborate set up, all the walking around, all the carrying on, just a set up for us to buy these bootlet cigars.

Oh Cigars all for sale!

Oh boy, so here it was, cigars laid out, and all the fast talk about having the "holograms" and the price is so good. The boxes were laid out in grand professional fashion, I had to admit, this was a good set up. Ernesto was fast talking and I was just not buying. Nope I don't need cigars, I just wanted to see the cigars being made, I had no one to take them for. I bullshitted for a while and stalled. The other man looked disappointed and I just dwadled and dragged and Ernesto suddenly got irate and pronounced "why won't you get these, what is the problem!" I didn't take too kindly to his tone of voice and thought of a way to diffuse this situation. I said that I would buy only one of the packages of the MonteCristos. They dragged and I insisted, I will only throw them to the garbage, I don't need 60 cigars, I've no one to give them to - how much, $20. $20 to get the hell outta a bad situation was cheap by any standards. The "cook" looked defeated, Ernesto looked less than satisfied as he led us to the street, bullshitted about meeting his girlfriend, by now it was 12:45 and he was supposed to meet her at 12 - hummm He kinda fumbled and we asked how to get outta this place, he led us up to Barrio Chino and he quickly melted into the city, he was gone and we quickly realized that we'd nearly been fleeced. We might've been taken for over $100 on the cigars or worse, robbed. I guess God was looking after us. Boy was that a fast one, quicker than any 3 card monty scam. I think I'd lost about 3lbs from that vigorous walk through the capital that day. After we stumbled out of Barrio Chino, and made it to another the Partagas cigar factory, we realized how close we were to the bloody cigar factory and how we were taken completely off base. I'll give Ernesto a pound for that fast one but I've got a something sneaky for him too, lets just say I'm not done. He wasn't the last to try the cigar hustle, but he was semi succesful, we had about 4 more hits, none of which we took the bait. But the cigar hustle is a slick one, the hustlers all speak English really well, they're well dressed and they all hit you with the political angle and the fact that they can't leave the island - yada yada and then they lay it on you; the "come-on". After this first we were well armed and prepared, I guess as they say - once bitten... well you know the rest.

Trying to play the fast hand!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Stunts, Blunts, Blingin' and...

Yes this is the current state of Hip Hop, rap - whatever you want to call it. Everyone is up in a tizzy about the copious amounts of sex, violence, and blatant nothingness etc in the "art form" these last days. All the fuss, all the talk over what I consider to be nothing! Key word folks is the word "artform" Art is the concept of what any particular individual deems it to be. Art can be as beautiful as the Mona Lisa, African sculptures, the Mayan pyramids or Salvador Dali's strange abstract paintings. They were all different in their own ways, none of them duplicating the next. Mondrian just painted colored squares, DaVinci did portraits. Same goes for Hip Hop the music in my opinion can be an expression of whatever the artist wants it to be. From Ms. New Boody, Lean and Pop, Shoulder leans, big boodies shaking, dancefloor quaking - whatever. You've a whole school of thought that says that the recent Hip Hop releases are senseless. Ok and so what, is all art supposed to be master pieces. Sometimes they make as much sense as one of Dali's odd paintings, and so what, I'm sure more than a few folks have said a thing or 2 about Dali and his brand of art. Some say that the guys disrespect the women, the violence is too much. Yah ok, I don't hear these folks complaining about the abundance of violent movies, that they themselves enjoy watching. I'm sure they all love Denzel, but he won the Oscar for "Training Day" - the ultra violent movie. Yeah we sat there and cheered for his win. Lets not forget what Hip Hop is all about, its music, art, not reality, sometimes more like commentary. Why all the need for it to be positive or meaningful. Why can't it be nonsense, violent, sensible, deep, cultural, silly - whatever. Afterall, at the end of the day, its art and I've seen a million paintings and none of them are the same, and sometimes they don't always mean something to me.

And as for all the New York moaners, just lay off the rest of the country. When it was all about NY they ignored the rest of the country, now the spotlight has shifted they're moaning and hating on everyone else. Time for Atlanta, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and all the other underdogs to rise. Sick and tired of all the tired "anthems" coming out of the city anyway that don't sound like shit anyway. The only thing playing on the local radio are the out of town hits and of course they're still holding on to when things were great, so, ample "throwbacks" Yeah keep dreaming, get to the studios and make something that sounds good. And as for all the elitists, just remember, art can be anything and just because we're black doesn't mean that everything that our artists put out should be socially responsible, they don't owe anything to society, these guys are not role models, they are singers/rappers or whatever. If they feel like reciting how big their rims are or how many chains, hey so be it. I am not looking to them for anything redeeming anyway and neither should society. So to everyone frustrating themselves with the "current state of Hip Hop" I say, get a life, bop ya head to the beat pop ya collar and just zone out lean and pop and have a ball; its just music, after all as I said before, it ain't that deep.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Jury Duty

I won't go to jury duty. The request has reared its aweful head at the most inopertune time of my life. I just got back from vacation, another coworker is out, I've got Dr's appts and its just too damned much after dealing with a particularily horrific year of 2005. I have decided to not show up and maybe risk being arrested. I actually am one of a few not wanting to slog off work. The thought of going there and wasting time is repulsive. So I've decided I'm going into work and testing my luck. They'll come find me if they really need me.

Pyramid Ponzi

So on our return to Mexico we were well prepared for the timeshare ponzi scheme guy when we exited, we again asked about our bus, we played along because we knew the come-on. We were soon being offered a Lobster dinner, we laughed told the guy we knew the game and took off for our airport transfer. He was still begging us as we took off. With an entire day to kill in Mexico we weren't going to get suckered into another hotel "tour" so we decided that we'd take the day to visit the amazing archeological site Chichen Itza. The ruins are one of the 7 wonders of the world and really something to see. The tour was to last from 7am returning us back to our hotel at around 7pm. Another things about Cancun is the apparent hounding and desperation at which every tour official tries to sell you tours, from the moment you walk into the hotel lobby the approach you like barracuda showing this tour and that. We promptly informed our "tour official" that we'd taken care of our Chichen Itza tour with the dubious guy in charge of arranging our "special" hotel condo rooms.

7 am Sunday morning we're picked up by our bus for what we thought was the standard pick up to be off to Chichen Itza, we were excited and hoped to get started for this 3 hour drive to the site. Little did we know we'd be strategically dropped off at a souvenir shop to group with all the other tourists to be portioned off to our various tours. This was the first stop in what would be a long day of sell sell sell to the tourist. We're soon on our way around 8:15, the guide is informative, schools us about the Mayan people, their culture and about skillfully buying more souvenirs. The ride commences and we're on our way but wait, oh no - we pass thru a "Mayan village" with some authentic "souvenirs" We're dropped off at a rest stop to stretch our legs and have a bathroom visit, conveniently the pitt stop is yet another souvenir shopping experience. By this time a few of our fellow tourists were becoming a hip to the shill game that was going on. On our way the bus is boarded by the Mayan alphabet guy. Get your name or initials in 18 or 14k gold, ummm umm good, also get a date done in Mayan language and on and on with the trinkets. We arrived at the site in the intense 12pm sunshine and heat again we are breezed by another souvenir shop, the hotel and we are grouped for the "don't-get-lost" sermon and our picture is taken to record who exactly is on the tour.

Finally 4hrs later we are off to the ruins and not too soon. From the time we hit the entrance gate we are set upon by the local people hawking masks and their various Mayan regalos and wares. My husband and I decided that we had enough and we set off leaving the group to get up close to the ruins. Everywhere we wander kids, adults and a smattering of all locals run up with their items. The park had to have put these folks there we thought, otherwise they would've been tossed out. By the time we got to the Mayan ball court arena we were all but beat down by the sun and thankfully it was time for lunch.

The strategically placed hawkers.

Lunch, yes glorious shade and lunch. As another tourist smartly realized "ah ha we've to pass thru another souvenir shop to get to the eating area" Indeed we did have to saunter thru more wares to eat. And after eating we were set upon by a gaggle of ethnic dancers who twirled and balanced bottles and then at the end planted themselves at the exit door complete with tip hat, to which we gladly passed without acknowledging. We were able to get back to the ruins and salvage what time we had left snapping up the photos for the reason why we really came. Thankfully we were able to do that. The final sell or insult whatever you want to call it was when we entered the bus to return home we were presented with a bottle of Tequila complete with our photo on it, the same said photo that was supposed to be used to find us if we got lost and of course this could be our special gift - for a price.
A completely awe inspiring tour practically ruined by the sharks that run this area called Cancun. Even the map that we were given was not too attentative to the ruins or even helping to identify the area, it was all about the sell, visit the boutique, check out the silver, get your name in Mayan letters! Enough. What should have been the highlight only became the backdrop. The pyramids at Chichen Itza were nothing but the light with which to draw the tourist moths into the trap of souvenir buying, it almost seemed as if we didn't take it upon ourselves to go off we would've hardly seen anything, they even sold the hotel stay as an option. All in all it was tasteless and disappointing that the people didn't even value their awesome and rich heritage and only viewed it as a way to fleece unsuspecting tourists. Needless to say that upon my return to Mexico - Cancun in particular, I will be renting my own car, driving myself to Tulum & Xcaret and enjoying the beautiful pyramids there in serene peace, far from the annoying sales pitches and shill games.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Don't Let Them Scare You

So after escaping the hard sell of Cancun, the awful tourist contraption that it is, we hopped a plane and headed for the real vacation to none other than Cuba. The largest island in the Caribbean chain and the only communist/socialist country left and the source of America's agate. From Cancun to Cuba is a mere 45mins but the 2 places are worlds apart. We arrived around midnite and had to find our way to Varadero - 3hrs from the airport. Jose Marti airport in Havana is something different, the sullen staff, the tired appearance and the surly customs officials are something else. We were asked for our passports what seemed like a million times, asked about gifts grilled on where we're staying and finally we made it out to have to find transport. Now that transport was a 3hr 120mile race to the resort complex. 3hrs later, my husband with frazzled nerves due to the speed demon driver - we pulled up in front the Cuatro Palmas Hotel to begin our week's stay on the "forbidden" island.

Varadero is an interesting project in tourism; built like a gated a community; the 12 mile strip is home to countless hotels, a tourist haven (not the loud busy American types) and totally off limits to locals. There is even a check point at the beginning of the area so there is simply no getting in if you don't work there or aren't a tourist. In Varadero one forgets all worries or even the fact that you're in Cuba. Days were lazy, it was all inclusive due to the fact that the Varadero area is not exactly chock full of busy streets and business. This is more like the suburbs, calm serene and just a place to get lost in.

After 3 mind numbing days at the beach, nights partying and an idyllic peace, we left for legendary Havana. We were all set to stay in a Hotel in Old Havana and we were all too excited. The ride from Varadero to Havana in the day time was wonderful. The Viazul bus lives up to its name, it travels via the blue ocean all 3hrs back to Havana. Entering Havana was a bit of a culture shock. It looked like Beirut, crumbling ancient beautiful colonial buildings stood sentry over a roughshod city with the inhabitants weaving and existing between the decay. Old cars, Buicks, Plymouths, all circa 1958 sputter along with Ladas from the late 70s and a few modern ones sprinkled in between. The thing about Cuba is that it doesn't elicit pity for the people; yes life is hard but everyone makes a way. Whether its riding a bike for money, turning your old hearse into a smart taxi or the cigar hustle, they get by. Our hotel rose like an oasis in the ruins, a former Jewish residence with a resplendent interior complete with roof top dining.

Cuba is indeed a country of many contradictions happy and sad, glorious and tragic, suffering but prosperous, rich but poor. Cuba is filled with music, music is everywhere, the salsa, son, rumba and cha cha fill the air, it pours out of bars, streams out of restaurants and is blaring from any available radio. Walking the streets one is assaulted by the rich culture and the extremely talented performers. On several occasions we went out to shows and the dancing the dancing, was simply amazing! Second to none! The salsa dancers were on point and they literally cut the rug. But one is also assaulted by the desperate, begging on the sly because the police are apt to arrest anyone bothering a tourist. Some of the performers themselves have actually been reduced to desperation too.

What I realized and loved most about Cuba is the raw undiluted culture, the African culture that hasn't seemed to've been changed since the end of slavery, it mixed with the Spanish and indigenous to form what is unique and distinct to the island, Santaria is still strong and the beads are everywhere, it is not rare to see a Santero or Santera dressed in head to toe white. This is what is missing from where I'm from - Barbados. The lack of exposure has led the people to reach deep inside and cultivate what they have making it oh so much better.

Nothing is take away, no disposable cutlery, or readily available plastic bags, nothing is wasted, soda cans became baking containers for flans, box covers became utensils with which to eat take away Chinese and improvising is key. No silly fast food joints, no "Golden Arches" of McDonalds beckoning, no trashy Pizza joints, just the ice cream vendor on the Obispo the supplied half the populace with cones at all hours of the day. Supermarkets or what seemed like them were tired and the offerings were sparse and tired. The shelves bared no bounty of anything, and everything was safely behind the shopkeeper's counter. The large market; Cuatro Caminos; was a portrait in lethargy as vendors looked none to spry and even less energetic. Windows in the building were broken and from the exterior the place looked abandoned. Vendors of what seemed like fried bacon and piled up roasted chicken legs and various pastries spilled outside with there wares that my husband was scared to even taste. Locals ate what was far from the Cuban food we were used to in the city - sandwiches were the food of choice for most locals and pastries are abundant. Everywhere locals toted beautifully decorated cakes without boxes in the hot dusty diesel smoke infested air.
Oh it was an exciting and intriguing trip, one that awoken the senses and challenged one's comfort boundaries one that I would do again in a heartbeat. It was different and an experience that can't easily be compared to another. Havana isn't run over with picture clicking tourists or loud food fueled Americans, just discreet Canadians and the smattering of Europeans. It probably won't be this way for ever or maybe for much longer but at least I got to see it before a change happens some change maybe before the Yanks get there or who knows, the road ahead is still covered in fog. My advice to any purists, get your tourist card, tickets and get going, Cuba is in rare form!

Friday, May 05, 2006

Go Mexico!

Cancun, so much more than the beautiful Mayan pyramids!

I just recently returned from quite an interesting trip of 2 quite different countries - same language, 2 completely different experiences. First stop on my journey was Cancun. Long a haven for party crazy, booze fueled American Springbreakers. Its a super skinny strip jutting out on the Yucatan Penninsula complete with a Lagoon. The strip is crammed square inch for square inch with nothing but Hotels, restaurants, clubs and of course souvenir shops. The strip is just about 19miles and all situated beach front. Upon entering Mexico or should I say, Cancun; one should be forwarned about the absolutely shady and deceptive tactics of the timeshare jackels. I never thought I'd have to research a country's airport but Cancun is something out of the ordinary. Now I've been to airports, Holland, London, San Francisco, Jamaica, Barbados... you get it, quite a few but never ever have I experienced anything like this. It starts like this, you exit with your bags, one is quickly handed a tourist guide complete with map etc. A guy in uniform walks up and asks if you have transport to your hotel, you say yes and that you need to locate it, he directs you to some cats in very airport official looking booths and you say to yourself, hey they're here to help me. You go over and inquire about your bus and where you need to go and they give you all the necessary info, they then ask where you're staying, proceed to pull out a map, show you where you'll be and the then and slick and slippery as a snake, there is the "come-on". You're asked if you are interested in a free breakfast the next day and some fun tours, hey what a nice guy you say. You're then engaged in a conversation with this 3 card monty-like fast talker, he says hey your bus will be ready in about 20 and he proceeds to tell you he'll give you a discount to tours, just make a downpayment and all you have to do is go have this free breakfast in the morning, "see" this hotel that they're trying to promote since the Hurricane and you're on your way and oh, he'll even throw in a free week's stay for next time if you "see" this hotel. So now my husband and I are totally in but good old Carlos wouldn't shut up and all I could think was - why do you know how to speak English so well, damnit! So we make a downpayment and we're off with the warning not to let anyone try to sell us any tours. Humm whatever. Next morning we're picked up passed from one person to the next, checked on our marital status and financial via credit card identification. I finally get to have my free breakfast after much protesting and off we were on what was to become and elaborate and ridiculous time-share sales pitch! Arrrrgh! I can't believe we got weaved into this mess. We're off looking at the Yacht club digs, being sold the whole whazoo and being told that we could basically buy everything and exist forever in a grand utopia in Shangri La. Gorgeous suites, all for us and when not using well they'd be making money for themselves and you being rented and oh lets not forget the equity - sweet!
Fast forward 3hrs later (this was supposed to be a 90 minute presentation by the way) I'm all dressed for the beach and could only think about getting away from this sales pitch and running freely on the lovely white sands but alas I was to become a captive of ruthless sales hounds. On the final leg of this journey we were taken to the negotiation room. Crammed full of other couples being preached to. Drinks are brought to the table and out comes the heavy guns of the hard sell - starting at 89k, and shifting around to 59k then 39k with incentives and so much shape shifting and numbers and free weeks and weeks per year and on and on that my head was spinning and I couldn't write fast enough! Papers were moving all over that desk and the sales guy who seemed so calm and sweet soon had his good nature quickly evapourate as our indecisiveness became more of a negative. Were we to leap into this decision right away? Yes we were told to just be out with the credit cards and that some of the couples here were buying. Look at the properties, how wonderful, how nice, save money on your vacations, you're losing money now...Nope, not biting. Ok so the manager comes over and he looks like the closest kin to the Mexican Mafia, he asks what he has to do to make us buy, we say nothing we just can't come on vacation and purchase something so major without thinking! He gets irrate, dismisses us as the poor new sales guy gets almost spastic. He still tries to show us the properties, we want no part of it and we're passed off yet again for what was to be a sort of "exit interview" At this interview we're asked our feelings on the sales staff etc. But by the 4th question, we were yet again being hustled to buy!! What would this guy have to do, buy the time we ran out of there with the guy running behind Neil with his Rolex to hold onto; we were down to $6,000 for the share. We literally ran for our lives! I was able to get my deposit for the Jungle Tour back plus a Spa Treatment and a week free. But I had to fight my way out and away from the jackels. Then I had to yell and carry on to get my money back in US currency. By the time I was done with this gamut I was running for the beach and my sanity!! My warning to ALL going into the Cancun airport, just grab your bags and KEEP WALKING! Walk to your shuttle bus and don't look left or right, just go, you'll save yourself some agony, some sleep-in time and a whole lot of blood pressure. And even as you arrive in what should be the santuary of your Hotel you're again beseeched by the in-house "tour coordinator" - "Hi did you just check in, how are you, are you interested in any tours" By then Neil had had it and just walked right pass the poor woman, I wasn't using her so I just told her that I wasn't interested, we were leaving the next day and basically bug off. These are the things that make any trip to Mexico an enormous bother, trust me I would never return there just for a vacation, thank God this was just my stopover to my real destination. The sell doesn't stop with the time shares, everywhere one goes you are barked at and harkened to come into this store or that, this tour or the other - silver, decorations, hair braid, come into this restaurant and eat, this club, weed! blow! t-shirts! nice regalos! $10 only! got nice hats! real Cuban cigars! hand made! one of a kind! Oh gosh, a trip thru the Flea Market or downtown can be an exhausting experience, as people are practically trying to drag you into their booths and tour guides block you in the roads. This was definately something different - Cancun.

FUN FUN FUN - If you consider time share tours and annoying sales people fun that is!!!