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Another week in Havana - via Toronto

Author: RichardNika (More Trip Reviews by RichardNika)
Date of Trip: September 2011

Another week in Havana - September, 2011 - via Toronto and Niagara Falls


havana couple dogLiving in Miami and then Miami Beach, in 1960 through 1963 and again since 1971, I had been “Cuba’d” to bits. It was Cuba, Cuba, Cuba all the time - on TV, radio, in the newspapers, on the streets. The first wave of migrants began shortly after Fidel took power in January, 1959. First it was the wealthy, then the professional middle class, then the “freedom flights” of the 1960s. There was Fidel’s seemingly quick conversion to communism, the cold war issues, the ill-conceived and ill-supported Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 and the Missile Crisis of 1962. By the 1970s, Cubans made up a preponderance of the population of Greater Miami, and their numbers were increased further as those who had settled elsewhere in the US tended to drift back to Miami, and then by the Mariel boatlift of 1980. US administrations, one after the other, kept an embargo and travel restrictions in force against Cuba, catering in the process to the overwhelmingly Anti-Castro Cuban-American voters in south Florida. For decades, I’d been hearing about Cuba, and almost all of it was bitterly anti-Castro and anti the Cuban government. It was possible to get around the travel restrictions, especially by going through a third country, but it was also risky, and under the militantly anti-Castro Bush administration, it became riskier than ever. One report had it that more federal agents were being used to track money transfers used for “illegal” travel to Cuba than to track money transfers to terrorist groups.

I had gotten to the point of becoming increasingly anxious to see Cuba for myself instead of taking every anti-Castro screed I read or heard as gospel. In September, 2006, the summer camp in northern Ontario that I attended for two months every summer from 1950 through 1955 held its one and only reunion. It was held on site - the former campers gathered in Toronto and then journeyed for an all-day affair at the island, a few hours north of the city and just south of Algonquin Park. I realized that I could easily go to Cuba from Toronto - there are no restrictions on Canadians. I would be in Toronto anyway. And so I made the arrangements - very carefully, so as to avoid detection by the feds. And my daughter and I succeeded. My report on that trip is in this site under the name “Robert” and titled “A Week in Havana.” I hope you’ll read it; it’s much shorter than this one! While there, I discovered that most of what you hear about Cuba is simply not true. With one exception. All those wonderful old cars1 Well, now we’re almost three years into an administration that has virtually removed travel restrictions.

I had been transformed by that 2006 visit. I’d come home and written several short stories set in Havana. The third one, which was intended to be a short story of about 20 pages, turned into a 476 page novel. A 30s single American, recovering from a sadly aborted love affair, makes his third trip to Havana and falls in love with a tourism worker and would-be professional dancer. Cuba had so gotten under my skin.

I decided that this time, my wife also needed to see the real Cuba. We could have gone from Miami - it’s expensive, thanks to the remnants of the embargo - $400 roundtrip for a 230 mile flight - but it’s doable. So why did we go from Toronto - again? My wife wanted to visit an elderly and ill family member in Rochester, NY - not that far from Toronto. After having the opportunity to buy $50 roundtrips from south Florida to Niagara Falls, NY - no, that is not a typo - I decided we’d both go, and I’d buy an inexpensive Cuba package deal from Toronto for the same price as a roundtrip air-only ticket from Miami. Toronto is just a two hour bus ride from Niagara Falls. Sadly, the family member passed away, but all the tickets and packages had already been purchased., and I did have old friends from the afore-mentioned camp to visit with there. I bought a air/hotel package from a Toronto agency, and we were good to go. I’d have preferred to rent a room from a family in a private home in the central city, as I had five years earlier, but Canadian package deals only included hotels. I wasn’t pleased that we’d be about seven miles from the central city. But new experiences and new locations have their advantages, and the distance turned out to be no problem ast all.

Knowing that our credit and debit cards would be useless in Cuba, we made sure we had enough cash. In ‘06, my daughter and I had been hit with a terrible exchange rate and then having unexpectedly to take a $90 cab ride from Veradero Airport to Havana. My wife had been afraid to wire us money by Western Union, which does exist in Cuba, for fear of leaving an electronic trail for the feds. That wouldn’t have been a problem in 2011, but we also made sure it wouldn’t be necessary.

I spent a good deal of time on line, going to various travel sites. Most of the useful information came, not from specialized sites, but from previous visitors who posted. Virtually none were from the U.S. This wasn’t surprising. Despite the much-relaxed travel rules, the popular conception was Americans could go “legally” only if they were visiting family members, and bonafide family visitors weren’t much interested in posting on travel sites. In fact, enforcement of the “ban” had virtually ceased. Third-country travelers were no longer pursued, and a ticket from the US could be bought by simply saying that it was for family travel. No federal agent had any way of verifying the truth of an asserted relationship with a Cuban. Supposedly, one had to be visiting an “immediate family” member. But the official federal rule defined that as being anyone related, in any way, by blood or adoption, going back no more than three generations.

I debated whether to make a separate post for the Toronto stop, but it was so brief and difficult to disentangle from the entire trip account that I decided to leave them as one post.



Our Spirit Airlines nonstop flight from Ft. Lauderdale to Niagara Falls, NY arrived just about on time at 12:10 AM. We had considered going straight to a motel - there were some close by - and then going into town, but decided to just wait out the night in the terminal. A word about the Niagara Falls, NY airport. Its official abbreviation is IAG - nIAGara, get it? Orlando, Florida is MCO - why? Because when Orlando was a little cow town and Disney World not even a dream, there was no airport, just a leased corner at McCoy Air Force Base. Airport initials can be odd. Miami is MIA, but why is Ft. Lauderdale FLL - why the extra L? And Los Angeles is LAX - why the X? ExLax? Atlanta is logically ATL, but New Orleans is MSY and Chicago’s O’Hare is ORD - don’t ask me why. Canadian airports all begin with Y - Toromto’s Pearson is YYZ. Airport names may change, but their initials are never changed. Except once. When Idlewild (IDL) took the name of the martyred president, John F. Kennedy, it became JFK. But I totally digress.

IAG is spanking new and looks it. It’s located perhaps 10 miles from Niagara Falls. It’s a two story terminal, completed in 2009. It has two floors, an escalator, a restaurant and can seat hundreds of passengers. It has an information facility and a built in bus terminal. When we were there, it was served by exactly two flights every 24 hours. One of the flights, on DirecAir, went back and forth to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and Orlando, Florida. And Spirit went back and forth to Ft. Lauderdale - in the middle of the night. Meaning that this airport is usually deserted and the restaurant locked down.

We debarked on the second floor and headed towards some comfortable-looking seats, but were told we had to leave that area and go downstairs. We made ourselves at home in the huge and empty ticketing lobby, but were soon told we had to leave it and go into the attached bus station. There were benches there to lie on, for what it was worth. The first bus supposedly was due early in the morning, and the second an hour and a half or so after that on the reduced Sunday schedule. The transit system was operated by NFT, Niagara Frontier Transit, and there were timetables on a shelf. I had grown up in nearby Buffalo, always despising NFT for its unreliability. I soon learned that nothing had changed. There was a 24 hour transit phone link, but the man at the other end didn’t even seem to know that a new airport had come into existence and would only talk about Buffalo’s venerable airport - which, for the record, is initialed BUF. We inquired about taxi rates - they started at $35. We decided to wait and see, but we did want to make the Coach Canada bus from Niagara Falls, Ontario that would get us to Toronto - and within a short walk of our hotel - at about 1:30.

At 8:40 AM, an odd looking wooden “trolley” - that is, an imitation of an old time trolley, on wheels - appeared at the far end of the airport property. We approached it and were told it was part of the transit system and would take us to within a block of the Rainbow Bridge. Riding in it was like riding in a Model T - no shock absorbers - really, the bumpiest, most jarring ride I’ve ever had. But it was cheap, and went where we wanted to go, About half way en route, it pulled into a sort of substation at a small plaza. There was no one there. As we approached downtown, I could see that the smoke-belching, stinking chemical plants that I remembered Niagara Falls, NY for from my childhood were still at it. Pillars of black and white smoke, rising high.

There’s something surreal about crossing international boundaries on foot, but when also involves crossing a certifiable natural wonder of the world, it’s bizarre. It was one block to the entrances to the Rainbow Bridge. There was a small hut where you could change money, and we changed some of our US to Canadian there, then looked for the pedestrian entrance to the bridge. We found the sign. You walk around the corner of a small building, then go through a turnstile. It was eerily reminiscent of the turnstile I’d gone through years before, to pass into Tijuana, Mexico. There was a sign advising that, once through the turnstile, you had to proceed to Canada. Moments later, we were on the bridge, which accepts both vehicles and pedestrians. It was only from the bridge that we could first see the falls, both the straight, up-and-down American falls and the socalled horseshoe Canadian falls. The American falls are narrower, but the bmost noticeable thing about them, aside from the sheer volume of water, is the mass of rocks at the bottom. One lock at that and you can understand why few people who try to go over the falls from the Niagara River in a barrel, or whatever else they use, survive. It’s really a crapshoot; some years back, a young boy fell into the river and went over those same falls and survived without a scratch. The horseshoe falls, apparently dead ahead, are apparently a few hundred yards farther from the American falls, which are on the left as seen from the bridge. We paused several times, taking it in and taking photos. In the middle of the bridge is a marker for the international boundary, and there are coin operated telescopes, the same kind I recalled seeing on the Empire State building 86th floor observatory as a little boy.. At the end was a small structure where Canadian customs and passport control is located. As of a year or so ago, the US requires specific forms of ID - preferably a passport - to enter from Canada by land. Canada is easier - they’ve always been easier. We flashed our passports and were waved through.

I had no idea how to get to the Coach Canada bus station from there using public transit, so we took a taxi. The bus terminal was a few blocks uphill from another international bridge, the Whirlpool Bridge; like most bus terminals, it was rather small, somewhat shabby, and contained a snack counter. I bought two roundtrip tickets to Toronto and we settled back to wait. From the counter, I bought a copy of the Globe and Mail, Toronto’s leading newspaper. It was the thick Sunday edition, and, to my surprise, when I opened it, it contained a section which was a slightly abbreviated version of the New York Times, which I subscribe to at home. Looking at the bottom of that section’s front page, I was surprised to find that these Times sections are included in over 60 newspapers, all around the world.

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