6 May, 2006

This is the Miami version of the "If You See Something, Say Something" signs that we have in New York City.

I just loved this icon. Miami is a fun town if you look in the right places.

I don't know if this was part of the promotion for the rap concert going on in Bayside, but the entire street was littered with paper. Nearby, cops were standing around watching as pedestrians tried to cross the streets that had no functioning traffic lights.

The underside of the automated Metro Mover system, by far the best feature of Miami public transport.

6 May, 2006

The day has arrived. A day that I haven't told very many people about, both for superstitious reasons and for practical ones. But now it's here and I'm finally doing something I've wanted to do for a very long time. I'm heading to Cuba.

This is the year that Fidel Castro turns 80. And while the guy seems to be just as strong and alert as he's ever been, we're all aware this can't last forever. God knows what our country will do to screw things up when he's gone. But for now, he's still very much around. And managing to visit Castro's Cuba is something most everyone I know won't be able to say. Particularly Americans.

Yeah, the embargo. Unbelievable that such a thing actually exists. But it does, and it's made organizing this trip a real bureaucratic nightmare and a half. For one thing, not very many people want to risk pissing off the U.S. government by going in the first place. Sure, a lot of people say they want to go. But for one reason or another, they just never get around to it. Fortunately my friend Mike actually stuck with it and so, with a little luck, the two of us will actually touch down in Havana sometime tomorrow.

Now it's important to note that we aren't actually violating the embargo. If we were we'd be facing a $50,000 fine and confiscation of whatever of our property the authorities felt like taking. And if they tacked on "trading with the enemy" charges, we'd be facing a $250,000 fine plus ten years in prison. (Yeah, "home of the free" my ass.) So this is why not many Americans go to Cuba. Not that it's all that easy if you do decide to go. You obviously can't go from the States. And if you go through Canada, better not tell Air Canada you're an American or they won't sell you a ticket. (And they tend to find out when they see your passport.) You can fly a Cuban airline out of Canada or you can connect through Mexico or the Caribbean. But again, if the American authorities find out, you're up the creek.

What annoys the hell out of me is reading travel guides to Cuba that make a point of saying how the U.S. government doesn't actually forbid travel to Cuba. Rather, they only forbid spending any money there. Well, good luck getting to Cuba without somehow spending money in the process. You know someone in Cuba who will pay for everything? Sorry, that's not allowed either. It's all bullshit. For all intents and purposes, they have made it illegal to travel to Cuba. Period.

So how are Mike and I doing this without violating this stupid law? Simple. Journalists are still permitted to go to Cuba. We will be doing quite a bit of research on their communications system (wired network, cell networks, etc.), their use of old technology, how and if they connect to the Internet, their broadcasting systems, and more. We'll be doing an article in 2600, features on the radio shows, and anything else that will help people learn about what's happening down there. I should point out that this travel log might be considered journalism by those reading it, but travel related pieces are specifically excluded from the journalism classification by the State Department. But I'm still going to spend time putting it together because I believe people should also get the personal perspective. Sure, it means that I'll be working almost nonstop during the seven days we're down there but I guess that's sort of the point. I've also chosen to disregard the advice of people who think I should lighten up on my personal opinion of the travel ban and other criticism of U.S. policy. I appreciate the concern but I'm still going to express my opinions as an individual in this forum. Otherwise it wouldn't be honest or worth a whole lot. But that's only my opinion as well.

Anyway, on with the saga. Here's the plan. We head to Miami today and Havana tomorrow. But wait. Didn't I just say that it wasn't possible to get to Cuba from the States? Again, if you're a journalist or meet any of the other exemptions (like visiting family), you can make arrangements to take a short flight from Florida. To give you an idea of how few people get to do this, there are only a couple of planes a day that leave and they are not very big at all. So not only are we going to a very unusual place for most Americans but the way we're getting there would be next to impossible for the vast majority of the population.

Getting to JFK was the usual fun. Subway to Penn Station, the Long Island Railroad to Jamaica, and the Airtrain to the terminal. Yeah, you could take a subway all the way to Jamaica and save the commuter rail fare but it really is a whole lot faster this way. Plus there's a special weekend "city fare" that cuts the LIRR fare to only $3 between any stations within city limits. (Except for Shea Stadium which they charge full fare for because the notion of tens of thousands of baseball fans not spending the maximum rate apparently is distasteful to the MTA. Fuckers.)

The Airtrain was its usual automated self, mindlessly transporting people from place to place in the airport. I can't help but wonder how many more people would use it if they didn't charge an astronomical $5 for every ride to and from the airport. As it is there are always so few passengers and so many Airtrain "helpers" asking you if you understand how it all works. Annoying as hell when you're late and just want to zip on through. It's really not that difficult to grasp.

On the ride over I wondered if anyone has yet to jump in front of one of these driverless trains and just what exactly would happen if they did. How would the train even know to stop? And if it did stop, would every train on the line have to stop at the same time? I guess it's only a matter of time before we find out.

I met Mike at the terminal a full half hour before our flight was to leave. As I've come to expect, I was selected for a more thorough security examination. No big deal, a few more questions to answer, some of the stuff inside my two carryon bags was swabbed with something. I knew I wasn't going to be able to take pictures of anything that went on there but nobody ever said anything about leaving my iRiver audio recorder running during the entire process. I doubt anything really interesting was captured, other than people asking me to take my shoes off and that kind of stuff.

All in all it was a pretty smooth check-in process. Before we knew it, we were on the plane, we were taxiing down the runway, and we were in the air on the way to Florida. This was the first domestic flight I've ever been on since the American airline industry decided to start charging for food. Imagine that. People paying for airline food. Well, either nobody wanted to pay or nobody wanted to make food because I didn't see a single tray get handed out. Nothing to really care about, especially on a three hour flight. And those hours really flew as I spent the whole time writing. (No, not this. An article for "die Datenschleuder" in Germany all about the upcoming HOPE conference. I won't be writing this travel piece until a little later on.)

I've never been a big fan of Florida. I've only been here once before. I consider it to be too car-dependent for my tastes. And it's a bit too warm. Too much Disney. And, oh yeah, having TWO Bushes ruling over you at the same time should make any sane person want to run into Georgia or Alabama for a dose of sanity. That's how bad I find Florida to be.

But we had a free shuttle to the classy Sleep Inn in Miami Springs. The free Internet in the room was a nice touch. But what we really wanted to do was spend a couple of hours in the city proper as we had an early day tomorrow and it would be nice to see some of Miami, which does have its interesting parts.

And I quickly got a crash course in why Florida sucks. We were told that the only way to escape this concrete near-the-airport wasteland was to take a taxi. I hate taking taxis. In all parts of the world. Always have, always will. We heard a rumor of a bus and so we crossed a mega-highway to look at a bus stop that others had spoken of. We got to it and lo and behold, no buses after 8 pm! Yeah, this is the place to be.

We walked over to the Comfort Inn, which had the same free shuttle as the Sleep Inn. (I think they're owned by the same people, though why they would locate so close to each other makes little sense to me.) We pretended we were guests there and asked the desk clerk to call us a cab. We'd take the cab to the nearest MetroRail station which was the closest thing to mass transit these people seemed to have. Keep in mind that throughout all of this, everyone we talked to professed ignorance on where any form of mass transit could be found. While we were waiting for this taxi to show up, one of the shuttle drivers offered to take us somewhere. He spoke almost no English (like many others we had encountered) so we didn't know if he was offering us a free shuttle or was moonlighting as a taxi driver in a minibus. While we were trying to figure it out, our taxi pulled up and was immediately grabbed by a trio of chattering girls who seemed just as eager as us to get the hell out of there. I didn't have the heart or energy to start a taxi debate (did I mention how much I hate taxis?) so we started to consider the shuttle guy's offer. As it turned out, he would charge us $15 but wouldn't be able to leave for another 30 minutes. We had now been trying to escape from this hellhole for over an hour and we hadn't advanced off the street that these stupid hotels were all bunched up on. Just for the fun of it, I asked the taxi driver with the three chattering girls how much HE would charge to take us to the MetroRail station. Around $8 was the reply. OK, fuck the shuttle guy, we're not waiting around for a half hour to get gauged. It took a while but eventually another taxi made its way into the driveway and we jumped in before any other tourists got aggressive. The guy seemed perplexed when we told him where we were going. He wanted to know if "the black girl" had called him for us. As it happened, it was an African American female who had called our cab. Not that we would have said any different if it wasn't. He seemed a bit disappointed but agreed to take us to the train station. It took about 15 minutes and cost $15. Great. Either the $8 cab driver was lying or this guy had ripped us off exactly the same way the other guy would have. We didn't care. We just wanted to get to the city and find some halfway decent food. And after all of this, we were only at the train station which was on top of a busy highway with the city visible in the distance.

The MetroRail was a pretty unimpressive system. Most of it apparently remains to be built with some relatively short links not scheduled to be finished until 2014. I couldn't imagine anything more depressing than counting the years until the MetroRail moved from poor to fair service. We must have been at that station for another half hour before our train arrived. And that was after one train passed the station without stopping and another came down our track in the wrong direction. Had we not known it was going the wrong way, we would have wound up even farther from our destination. But at last we got on our train and took it to a stop called Government Center. From there we hopped on to what was actually the coolest part of the system, the automated (and free) MetroMover. This was an Airtrain-like system which looped around the city. It wasn't much bigger than a roller coaster and sometimes about as scary because of the sharp turns and steep hills. But it got us to Bayside, our destination, without any people to mess it up.

And so we hung out in this Mecca for boomboxes where the throbbing base could be felt as soon as we stepped off the mini-train. This apparently was the place to be seen on a Saturday night. Fast cars, fancy getups, even some sort of a rap show taking place nearby. But none of that mattered. A crowd like this must attract food establishments. And sure enough, not only food establishments but a giant indoor/outdoor mall was waiting for us.

We quickly found a place to eat, sit by the water and watch tourist and party boats, and just relax after spending about as much time to get here as it had taken to fly from New York. It didn't matter. When you go through what we've gone through to book a trip to Cuba, this kind of thing doesn't really faze you.

At least that's how I felt before we tried to head back to the hotel. We fully expected to deal with the same crap going back and probably get at least as ripped off in the process. We took the MetroMover back to Government Center and waited for the MetroRail back to where we had started. During the long wait, we were both looking at the map when a guy asked if he could help us. We explained our plan and he suggested an alternate. It involved taking a bus all the way to Miami Beach which was pretty laughable considering it was directly opposite to where we wanted to go. He agreed it seemed ridiculous but that it actually made more sense because from there we could catch another bus that went to the airport and then from there get our shuttle to the hotel. He capped it off by pointing out that if we stuck with our original plan we would be taking the MetroRail to a neighborhood that had a Martin Luther King Blvd. and that "you know what that means." What was with this town? Well, while we were having this little discussion our train had arrived and it was either bolt away from this guy to catch it or at least thank him for trying to help. Naturally, while doing the latter our train doors closed so we knew we had another lengthy wait and another taxi ripoff to look forward to or we could take his advice which seemed like it could work. So we left the station and soon found ourselves on an "S" bus to Miami Beach. But the bus driver told us we should transfer at an entirely different station without heading all the way out there. This was probably the only transit worker we had met in the entire evening who knew a single thing about the system he worked for. Every other question had been met with blank stares or a shrug of the shoulders. Of course, this was also the guy who was really hard to understand: he kept telling us to get off at what sounded like the "Onion" and which eventually turned out to be a bus station called the "Omni." Whatever.

So we waited at this station, hoping that we were in the right place. It was 12:20 am and we had to be up early. We were relieved to see that one of the other people waiting for the bus had a TSA shirt on. Fantastic. This guy was obviously going to the airport so not only were we in the right place but the bus must be getting here soon since a TSA worker would know the schedule. That's what you would think. A half hour later when the Night Owl airport bus finally arrived, the TSA guy got on it but it was actually coming FROM the airport. He must have been heading home instead of going to work. (I'll never understand why he just didn't take this very bus from the airport in the first place and not torture us like this.) And naturally the bus driver had no idea when/if the other bus heading to the airport would show up. Things were really getting annoying. All of these long waits, non-helpful transit workers, and the prospects of getting almost no sleep were really wearing on us. What a lot of stress to just get a fucking meal in Miami after FLYING INTO Miami. I could have gone out to eat in Philadelphia from New York with less delays. Anyway, after an hour's wait, our bus finally arrived and began the long trek to the airport where we had another 20 minute wait for the shuttle.

So my distaste for Florida and taxis has been replenished with this adventure. But this is nothing compared to the adventure that awaits us tomorrow. I think we've been well primed for as much frustration as anyone can give us. We shall see.