Thursday, 21 January 2016

Cuba City Scenes

We are not lie on the beach and get a tan people. Well, that's not true. We are those people, but not for days on end. Our family will last for a day on the beach, but then we want to go try something different before coming back for another day on the beach. What I am saying is that we like time away from the resort as much as we enjoy our time on it.

Since this trip was in Varadero, there were three cities we decided to visit:

  • Varadero town - this is really just a tourist trappy sort of place that offers little apart from trinkets for sale, resorts, and vacation rentals. On the edge of town there are some oil wells and a refinery, but apart from that, the only real industry is tourism, so you won't get a feel for the culture and heartbeat of Cuba here. 
  • Matanzas - Matanzas is a working town about 15 minutes from Varadero. Many of the resort staff live here, it has a number of factories and farms. A small university, and is a real city. We did a bus tour of Matanzas but only got out at the town square for about 15 minutes. 
  • Havana (AKA La Habana) - The capitol of Cuba, Havana is a longish drive from Varadero. It took us about an hour, maybe a little more to reach it. The highway to Havana is a rural freeway, but the mix of vehicles along it includes everything from donkey carts to Russian built trucks. The city itself is as vibrant and busy as any large city anywhere.


Since I have dedicated the entire previous post to the resort and Varadero, I am going to give it only a very brief nod here. If you like straw markets and taxis, then Varadero is a good place to visit. It's a pretty town and everything looks nice.

One of the things I keep wanting to do in Cuba (but never have) is to get off the resorts and rent a room in a "Casa Particulaire" These privately run B&B's utterly litter Varadero, and are a real budget option to staying on resort. For around $30 CUC per day you get a nice room and sometimes a meal. You can negotiate additional meals into the room for a fee. If you see this symbol on a house, it has tourist rooms for rent (text optional):

Of course being a tourist town, old American cars are everywhere, running as taxis. Rates are highly negotiable, but generally get higher the farther you are from town. Between our resort and town the drivers would start by asking for $15 CUC but could be negotiated as low as $7 CUC. These cars are the epitome of beauty being skin deep. Often they have been re-engined with diesel or japanese engines, have a subframe from a different car, and generally are cobbled together from whatever is left over from other cars. Be careful getting into one for a long drive. Seatbelts don't exist, floors may or may not be solid, steering and suspension may or may not work. Most have an inspection sticker on the windshield, and if the inspection is more than 2 years old are considered stale dated. This does not prevent drivers from continuing to use them.

In downtown Varadero there is a childrens' playground. One thing that can be said about Cuba is that they truly value children. A cute kid will always get to jump cues, get little gifts, and get special attention. The country is madly in love with kids. The boys also loved Cuba and all the attention they got. Also note the chicken in the park. Chickens are everywhere in Cuba.

We stopped at a restaurant to give the boys a pee break, and while I waited for them, I snapped this picture of some backyards. I always think you can tell more about a town by what is behind the facade, and this gives a good feel for life in Cuba. Varadero backyards look a whole lot different than the front yards:

I'm going to leave Varadero with that backyard shot and move ahead - we tend to put a 'Canadian' view on this and see poverty and dirt in that backyard, but you can't impose the ideas of Canada on a tropical place with a communist government. Lets leave it at that and hop ahead to Matanzas.


The trip we took included a half-day excursion to the Matanzas Caves. We only realized this once we had booked our trip, so it was a nice surprise. The caves are very nice, and the tour guide was quite good. I think I enjoyed the caves on our trip to Shenandoah better, but these were still very cool. The preservation rules and visitor protection were very different between Virginia and Cuba - that was to be expected though.

I love this next picture because to me it shows the progression of the Cuban economy through the vehicles on the streets. First the era of US investment and the 'playboy' attitude toward Cuba, then the stoic soviet era where survival was the only thing that mattered, and finally the here and now of new Chinese/Japanese investment, reopening the economy, and the general spirit of optimism the island seems to be in. For sure, the times are changing. All this on a colonial Spanish cobblestone road.

While we're talking cars, a lot of people go to Cuba just to see the lines of old American cars. I don't blame them, there are many around. There are also a lot of Soviet era Ladas and Fiats. Mostly you see the old American cars lugging tourists around and living a hard life as taxis. They are expensive to drive and maintain, and often the only original parts are the body. According to our tour guide, a good condition 67 Chev would fetch a price of around $80,000 since it is a guaranteed money maker. More if its a convertible. I also believe our tour guide was manufacturing a lot of facts on the fly. Regardless, if you have an old American car you can make around $100 a day which is a very big number by Cuban standards. Russian cars though - they tend to be not-taxis, and more utilitarian.

This picture was taken in the main square of Matanzas. Our tour bus is in the background. The two young people walking toward the camera are students. Many workers in Cuba wear uniforms, and all students wear uniforms to school. Elementary/junior grades are blue, College is brown. There is a university just outside the square where these two likely study.

Policy in Cuba is that as long as a student can maintain a high GPA, their education will be paid up to two doctorate degrees. The onus is on the student to maintain a GPA that qualifies them to continue in their studies. It is illegal to hire a child under 18 yrs old, so kids who drop out of school or don't maintain a high GPA are left in limbo. I am not sure what becomes of them. This education/work policy is a big contrast to Canada where college/university is expensive and many kids go to work to raise college money, then never return to school. FWIW, Cuba follows international standards in its degrees, so although it is a poor third world country, its education system is on par with most first world nations, and its literacy rate is higher than most. Cuba produces more doctors than it has space for, and deploys them to other countries on humanitarian work.

This next photo is in the town square in Matanzas. Since Cuba has been through multiple regime changes and internal wars within  the last 100 years, war memorials and statues of heroes abound. Dictatorships love reminding their people of the greatness of the leaders, and Cuba is no exception. Everywhere you go there is another statue celebrating another hero of the revolution. Momma and I had a corny kiss here.

The building below is a old fire station from the 1880's. It needs some restoration, but it looked really cool, so I snapped a shot. The traffic geek in me loves the painted island though. Around here a plow would tear that mo-fo out in the first snow. Also, the radii on the departure curve seems a little tight...

I think Matanzas was probably the kids' first exposure to poor Cuba. Some of the neighbourhoods here really showed neglect and a need for some work, but we never saw anyone begging or anyone who looked unhealthy. Yes some of the roads were coming apart, and the electric grid has a certain charm, and yes there is certainly less 'stuff' than we have here, but although there are many poor Cubans, there is little poverty in the sense that poverty is a state of spirit while poor is a cashflow situation. Many windows in Cuba are covered in steel bars - this is a throwback to island architecture and not a crime issue. The bars were originally incorporated in the architecture to keep pirates away and were wooden. Then the french came with steelwork and it became a prestige symbol to have ironwork on the front of the house. The bars are now largely decorative - and they are everywhere.

On the edge of Matanzas sits the baseball field. Every kid in town wants to make it to MLB - and this is where those dreams come true. Here the Matanzas team plays. All amateur, no paid players (a point of pride). All of them dreaming of making it to the big league. Baseball is Cuba's national sport, and the fandom is as feverish as it is for hockey here.

Leaving Matanzas, we aim for Havana (La Habana). On this drive was saw all manner of vehicles, and drove through heavy rain. It is not uncommon to see trucks such as this one with families seated around a table in the back, or a crowd of workers in them. Often they whistle and wave as they go by.

La Habana (Havana)

You come into Havana along a beautiful boulevard, than go under a tunnel and emerge in the city. Within the city three layers of post-European history emerge - the old Spanish history, the newer American era, and then Castro's Cuba.

There is much propaganda. It makes me wonder how the transition to trusting Americans will work. It seems that most Cubans are eager to see American money, but care little for the culture, the investments, or the people. In the words of tour guide "America will only bring us MacDonalds and Rock and Roll. What good is there in that?" another zinger - "The only reason you need American dollars is if you are going to defect. Anyone collecting US currency is a traitor. Don't give it to them."

And Havana is bustling with tourists without Americans. The queue of cars below are all taxis booked for the day by foreign tourists. Here, along the Malecon the taxis sit and wait for their clients to return. Drivers lean on each others cars and a staccato Spanish fires up and down the lines of cars as the drivers compare notes. On the seawall, young men fish, and tourists promenade all day long walking along the famous strip. As we walked, the oil vent in the background burned, an English cruise ship came in to port, and a foreign tanker left. Yes the blockade prevents trade with the US, but not all trade; and Venezuela, China, Russia, and others are poking enough holes in the blockade for this experiment to continue to work.

Streetscapes in the city range from opulent to run down to abandoned. Being visitors we don't understand all the change here, but wondered what to make of the various buildings and their condition. Especially in sports like below where a brand new apartment block sat next to rows of crumbling buildings.

In the photo below, you see the line-out of cars again showing the various eras of control. I love these pictures where the traffic is so mixed. Also, the countdown pedheads showing 70 seconds - and thats just part of the phase. 

In old Havana we visited Hemingway's bar and the cathedral. We saw the national Hotel (beautiful!) and were overall impressed with the city. Unfortunately it rained a lot while we were in town, and Cubans have a fear of catching their death in the rain. This lead to some complications with our tour guide, an ubrella, and the boys. (Save the children!)

Eventually we were lead to the rooftop terrace of a hotel where we could see over the city. We were supposed to be impressed with the view of the old fort and the city from here, but Momma and I both found ourselves snapping shots of the backs of the buildings that were "uninteresting". This had the tour guide perplexed.

We took a family photo at the National Hotel. Havana's National hotel is quite beautiful. It is where foreign dignitaries and diplomats come to stay, and has all the lavish outfitting appropriate to such a hotel. But it also has the 'famous room'... which was a little... weird? In this room there are giant cardboard sheets with all the famous people who have visited the famous room - going back to pre-blockade times - many national leaders, cosmonauts, singers and dancers, artists, etc. Just pictures of heads, with a name and title under them. Bill Murray was there, as was Leonardo DiCaprio, among others.  Its sortof a National brag book of all the people who have come to Cuba. Strange. Many of the famous people there I had never heard of, but nodded solemnly when the tour guide pointed and said their names. 

The Havana tour was cut short when the boys got tired. So we all made the long drive back to Varadero and the resort, arriving back in time for dinner. In Varadero, Momma made a stop at the flea market for some trinkets, then we went to our room and packed up for the trip home.

At the Varadero airport, James snapped this picture of planes on the runway. the big plane had just been loaded for a domestic flight. Since Varadero is advanced, they used a bus to carry guests to that plane - in other airports we've had to run across the tarmac to the plane. International flights from Varadero board at the gates per normal. Varadero is a "very modern" airport. having been built in 1989. It even has 2 x-ray machines!

So that's it for the Cuban cities we visited. I'm not sure whether I'll add a third piece to this triplog or not. still thinking about where I'd go with it and what I'd say that hasn't already been said.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Cuba - Third time's the charm!

We are just back from our third Cuban vacation. This time we elected to take the boys along, and as usual Cuba proved to be fantastic. Unfortunately, the weather and the resort were not, but Cuba is a charming place regardless. Our original plan had been to wait until summer, then make a trip to the southern US, but with the political turmoil down there, and our weak dollar, we decided to do a winter vacation to Cuba instead.

I think I'll break this trip report into bits - first on the resort and cute kid pictures, then old cars and Havanna, and then maybe a little politics and emotion, but first - the fun stuff. Resort life.

We flew out of Toronto with Cubana airlines headed to Varadero - a small tourist town featuring some 50 or so resorts strung out along a sand peninsula into the straits of Florida on the north side of the main island of Cuba. Flying with Cubana always produces 'interesting' meals, and this time was no exception.

I present our airline breakfast:

That's a greek salad, chicken breast, dinner roll, orange juice and coffee. I think the orange juice is what makes it breakfast. Not sure. Of course its still better than what they serve on Sunwing flights (nothing).

We landed early in Varadero, put our bags in the luggage locker, and headed to the beach and the hotel pool/snackbar.

The resort itself was very pleasant. The layout has a 'quiet section' and a main hotel. The quiet section is far from the shows and noise of the main hotel, which is good if you are travelling with boys. If you come to Varadero to party, this is not the section of the hotel for you.

It didn't take the boys long to figure out "Uno pina colada por favor" and soon they were best friends with the bartenders all over the resort.

Buddy adopted this banana tree, and checked every day to see if the bananas were ready for picking. If they had of ripened, I'm sure he would have had them for lunch.

Unfortunately, it rained A LOT while we were in Cuba. That meant it was hard to get in beach time, but we made the most of it when the weather improved to overcast, and had a really good vacation with lots of beach time and lots of trips into town, and even a few volleyball games.

We did some hiking on the beach, and found coral and shells, and we jumped and dove in the waves too! Unfortunately, the schedule at the resort didn't allow us to catch many of their shows - although we did see an animal show with dancing puppies and a cheeky pony, and a monkey.

It rained so much in Cuba, that the rooms below us were sometimes flooded out. Despite this, guests continued to be put in them. I can't think of much that would ruin your vacation faster than having your room flooded, and when I say flooded, I'm not exaggerating. This is the baggage car between our rooms and the next wing of the hotel. It is on the cart path. Luckily we were on the second storey.

In fact there was a lot about the resort that suggested we could have picked a better spot. Things like only hand towels in the room (no shower towels at all!), no beach towels until day three, very late meals, and then long lines to get in, beds with only one sheet on them, no pillows to speak of, many sick guests (food handling??), and so on. Its not a resort we'll return to.

Despite all this, the vacation was really quite good. we rode a Cocotaxi into town, and did some shopping, and we took an old car for a ride. There were bands playing music all over, and the bartenders were always friendly.

So what made the trip good? Well, a mix of things. We made friends with some really great people, and we brought along some card games that are really a lot of fun for all of us (seriously, get Saboteur - everyone loves it!) and when the weather was really bad, we just laughed and ran in the rain. Sometimes, that's all you can really do!

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Laundry Room Revisited

If you've been reading along on this post, you may remember that waaaay back in 2012 (three whole years ago!) I moved things around in our laundry room so that the dryer no longer vented to the garage.

Well, by way of confession... I never completely completed that job. I mean, the dryer vented properly, but I never patched the drywall where the previous owner had butchered it, and I never properly plugged the hole to the garage where the dryer had been venting. Instead I filled up the hole with plastic bags and pushed our dryer in place to hide it.

In the past few months though, the dryer that came with the house has been getting slower and slower to dry clothes, and the washer has been leaking and thumping around a lot. We decided its time for a new laundry pair.

Then when bought the machines, we were shocked to find they wouldn't fit in the old spot and had to be stacked. Once they were stacked, the cord for the new machine couldn't reach the plug for the old machine, and long story short, it was time to finish the job I started three years ago.

I wasn't going to bother blogging about this for two equally good reasons:

  1. I've become blase about blogging. Basically I don't any more.
  2. Blogging about moving wires is about as boring as it gets. 
but then I opened up the wall and was immediately BLOWN AWAY by what was in there, and just had to. Aren't you lucky. Basically this entry begins with a photo of a wall that's been opened up and cleaned up a bunch so you miss the whole dryer buying/stacking/attempt at plugging in and start right in with the good stuff.

The scene of the crime. You may be wondering why there is a white square around the area I am working. Its because the previous owner decided to just cover this mess with an oversized slab of drywall, then paint the wall. I guess that was an easy way to do things because all he needed was 6 screws to slab over the hole in the wall.

You may also have noticed that a stud has been cut about 5" above the floor and is being held up by... well, nothing. I guess the drywall screws are what's holding it. For those who haven't taken an engineering course, this is a bad thing. The bathroom above exerts a distributed load on the ceiling below which transfers that load through the studs to the floor in here. First priority - fix the stud.

Harder to see is the lint in the stud bay. Lots of it - from the dryer vent not carrying all the way through the wall. Lint means moisture, moisture is bad. Especially on a garage wall. But we've been through all that before. 

The yellow insulation column on the left of teh picture is the vent stack for our gas water heater. There is a piece of metal strapping across the bottom of the picture - once upon a time it held the vent in place on the stud that used to go to the floor.

This is a double wall. It carries the main drain stack and venting for utilities in it, so luckily there is a lot of room to work in here. before i took this picture I used some extra insulation from the basement to stuff in where the insulation had been removed for teh old dryer vent. 

Let fix the stud!

Hey fancy! I used the subheading autoformat tool! Anyways, in order to fix the cutaway stud, I needed to sister in new wood. You can see the stuff I used next to the drill in the photo above.

I like to hold the wood in place with a clamp to do this. It frees up a hand, and lets me line everything up before I use any fasteners. To prove I am not the ultimate handyman, I looked through my collection of odds and sods in the basement and got a bunch of 3" wood screws to pull teh boards together. They didn't match. If anyone asks, I'll say the previous owner did it.

Once that long board was in place with three screws through into the old stud, I put in a shorty below.

Apparently I also undid the screws holding the junction box for the laundry as well. Anyways, the little piece of wood was cut a little long to take the load from teh stud, and screwed to the new wood. Then both were screwed to the floor in opposing directions. Very solid.

It's time to get started on electric stuff...

Playing with Junction boxes - before reading any further, go turn off the breaker to your dryer.

Step one in this portion of the show is disassembling the existing box. The previous owner in his wisdom had used wood screws to attach the cover to this box. That was a bad idea for a few reasons - the pointy ends of the screws could have pierced a wire, they fit poorly, and they ruined the threads on the screw holes. Luckily though, he got the outlet wired properly.

The dryer outlet wires are just poked in holes and then screws are tightened up to sandwich the wire in place. Its a sort of vise. Super easy to assemble and disassemble, but also super easy to screw up the wire positions. So before proceeding any further, get a sharpie (your breaker is off right?) and label the wire positions.

Two seconds now will mean no sparks later, and you really don't want to fry the board in your new dryer. With that done, get out a red Robertson screwdriver and loosen - don't remove - all the screws. The wires will come free as teh screws are loosened, and you will be left with the box in one hand and outlet in the other. Put the outlet someplace safe, and repeat teh procedure with the ground screw and the clamp on the side of the outlet box. Save them if they are useful. If the previous owner used woodscrews and stripped the threads on your box, toss it out. With vigour. Curse you, previous owner!

On Junction Boxes

Back when I worked in hardware stores as a kid, the odd time someone would come by and unwrap a mystery you never knew existed. Here goes... stuff you didn't know about electric boxes.

For the dryer I got a common square junction box. Its a pretty boring thing. You've seen dozens of them. But look closely at the sides...

Free Mount Side

Drywall mount side
On one side of the box, the screw holes are halfway back in the box. This side of the junction box is what I call the "Free mount side" you can mount this box anywhere and line it up with anything. It has no locked position.

The opposite side of the box has a pair of little tabs and the screw holes are at the bottom of the box. This is the drywall mount side. If you bend out the tabs and rest them on a drywall stud, the space from the tabs to the top of the box will exactly equal the thickness of a sheet of drywall. (Be amazed now) and you will have 4 drill holes instead of 2. (Be even more amazed)

My camera refused to focus on the box. Oh well.
Now that the tabs define which side of the box will be against a stud, we can go ahead and knock out one of the knockouts on the other side to accommodate our wire.

This is also a good time to talk about the wire clamp. The wire clamp in the top right corner of the box does two things. First and most importantly, it prevents teh wire from being cut by the sharp edge of the box. Second, it prevents teh wire from being pulled or chafing. It does these things by going arounds the wire, and then inside the knockout of the box. As you tighten the screw on the clamp, it will press down on the wire, expanding the outer ring of the clam, and holding itself against teh box. If you can move the clamp around, its not working right. Especially in a laundry room where there is a lof of vibration, you want to get this right - otherwise one day you will be surprised by magic smoke coming out of your wires. 

At this point the electric is 'roughed in' If you paid an electrician to rough in a dryer hookup, this is what you would have (minus the markings on the plug)

With the electric roughed in, I could switch trades and put away the electrician tools to take out the drywall tools. I hate drywalling.

Drywall Time!

Before I actually start doing drywall, I want to talk cutting tools. First a drywall saw.

This is one of my drywall saws. I think I have about 3 of them. They come and go. I don't pay them much attention. You can pick them up for a couple dollars and all seem to work about as well as any other. Drywall saws have pointy tips and are great for stabbing into a sheet of drywall to cut a hole in the middle of it. Because they are so thin, you can cut tight circles with them. I used one of these to cut out the tube lights holes in the dining room ceiling. The trouble with these saws is that they tear aggressively at the paper backing on drywall and make a big mess of dust. For rough work in spots that will be hidden, they are a great tool.

Another important tool to have is a sharp utility knife. This one from sears has been with me for years.

Right now it has a hook blade in it from working on the roof. The nice thing about these knives is that the blades in them are interchangeable - and they have on-board storage for spare blades. Often they come pre-loaded with a half dozen spare blades.

For a blade change, you just undo the centre screw, take it apart, and swap out the blades.

This one was left out when I did the roof and all the blades got rusty - but the knife is still fine.

Cutting drywall with one of these is super easy - you just mark a line and score it with the knife...

The with a quick snap, fold the drywall to make a book, and use the knife to score up the paper.

The drywall will break where the knife cut as long as you are mostly in a straight line. The edge of the drywall will be a little jagged though, so its a good idea to 'shave' along the rough edges after cutting. I have a drywall rasp for that, but a small job like this didn't make it worthwhile to dig it out, so I just ran the blade along the edge to smooth it out.

Taking the drywall into the laundry, I lined up the dryer box and cut out its sides using the drywall saw. Then using the knife, I scored the bottom, folded and cut away to make the dryer box's spot.

A few screws, and we're ready for tape and mud... But wait - a test of the dryer cord isn't looking good. It still won't reach! (Insert swear words here)

Luckily I hadn't cut the excess wire to the junction box. I used the drywall saw to cut a hole in the wall and move the box up the stud bay...(Those are the drum stabilizers in the bag taped to the wall - won't lose them that way).

And used the old plug with the marks from when I disconnected everything to get it all wired up. It fits good!

The drywall patch is simpler now too! I just used the offcut from the first patch, and with a little trim, I had a good fit.

 Magic with mud, and its looking good. After this I was able to hook up the dryer vent and Momma got started on laundry - the new machines are much quieter, I think we'll like them! Tomorrow I'll sand and finish mudding but I need this first coat to dry. Heat from the dryer should help.

For my next job, I need to build a cabinet to hide the laundry venting and to allow Momma a spot to put her laundry baskets - these new machines are a lot bigger than the old ones and we lost all our storage!