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Greg Ellifritz

Travel Log- Cuba

Travel Log- Cuba 620 505 Greg Ellifritz

*My Travel Log series describes various past travel adventures and provides perspective about living and traveling in different countries.  This particular segment covers a trip I took to Cuba in May of 2016.

 

 

I spent last week on a short vacation.  Our primary destination was Cuba, where we spent four days in Havana.  As there are no direct flights for tourists from the USA, we had to catch a flight from Cancun, Mexico.  Since we both love the beach there, we spent some time before and after Havana enjoying Mexico.

 

We wanted to visit Cuba before it was fully opened up to an invasion of tourists from the USA.  Despite all the talk about dissolving the trade embargo, it is actually still illegal to visit Cuba as a tourist.  The only way you can legally do it is to meet one of 12 travel restriction exemptions.  Fortunately, writing a third world travel safety book gave me enough credence to qualify under the “journalism” exception.  It turned out to be a moot point.  US Customs and Immigration agents didn’t even comment on our destination when we returned home.  No justification necessary (although I had the draft copy of my book just in case).

 

We had a great time in Havana.  We walked all over the city, visited tons of cool museums, drank mojitos, saw some live music in the legendary jazz clubs, and rode around in some classic American cars.  Travel there isn’t easy.  Due to the trade embargo, none of the Cuban merchants take credit cards drawn on US banks.  That’s a nightmare because it means you can’t pre-book a hotel or rental car.

 

The ATMs don’t work for American bank cards either.  We had to carry lots of cash and pay for everything that way.  Unfortunately, there is a huge penalty for trading US dollars for Cuban Pesos (20% fee).  We circumvented that by pulling out Mexican Pesos from the ATM in Cancun and then converting them to Cuban Pesos at the airport in Havana when we landed.  We got around the hotel issue by renting an apartment on AirB&B instead.

 

I had some preconceptions about what I would see in Cuba, but I really wasn’t ready for the reality we faced when we landed.  Here are the things that surprised me the most:

 

1). The deteriorated infrastructure.  Roads and sidewalks were in horrible disrepair.  Turn of the 20th century buildings have not had any improvements in 60 years.  Swimming pools and city parks were abandoned.  It was almost like being in a war zone.  The people and the government just don’t have enough money to maintain their buildings and infrastructure.

 

Delapidated buildings and a famous hotel that hasn't been remodeled since the 1960s

Dilapidated buildings and a famous hotel that hasn’t been remodeled since the 1960s

 

2). The high unemployment rate.  I was amazed at the numbers of people aimlessly hanging around in the streets during normal working hours on a weekday.  No one seemed to be working.  We had hired a taxi driver to shuttle us around, so I asked him about it.  He told us that almost all of the jobs are controlled by the government (it is a Communist country, after all).  Most jobs have very low pay.  The average Cuban makes the equivalent of $25 US dollars a month!  Can you imagine trying to live on that?

 

Our driver told me that he was formerly an engineer.  He said that the most money he ever made in his government engineering job was $70 a month.  It wasn’t enough to feed his family, so he quit.  Now he drives a taxi and makes a lot more money.   Many Cubans have eschewed government employment for piece meal work in the tourist industry.  It pays better and requires less effort.  It doesn’t take much work to make $25 a month in tourist tips.

 

3) Food shortages.  Since we had an apartment, our plan was to buy breakfast and lunch foods at the grocery store to prepare ourselves.  That didn’t work out so well.  We went to the largest grocery store in the best neighborhood in Havana.  There were no eggs, dairy products, fresh fruits, or fresh meats available for sale.  The supply chains furnishing the government run grocery stores have some serious flaws.  It’s rare that the stores regularly have any of these items.  Thankfully, we brought some protein bars from home that we were able to eat for breakfast each day.

 

The restaurant menu choices reflected some of the difficulty getting certain foods. No steak today. This is my dinner of stuffed rabbit.

The restaurant menu choices reflected some of the difficulty getting certain foods. No steak today. This is my dinner of stuffed rabbit.

 

Who needs food when you can get a pitcher of mojitos for $7!

Who needs food when you can get a pitcher of mojitos for $7!

 

4) Utility outages.  Power was out in our apartment about 1/3 of the time…and this was in Havana’s ritziest neighborhood.  There were constant rolling blackouts that affected entire city blocks.  We also had no running water for one whole day.  Utility problems have become the norm for this once-great island nation.  It makes living there even more difficult.

 

Our beutiful little apartment (for about $60 US a night. Too bad the government can only deliver electricity about half the day.

Our beautiful little apartment (for about $60 US a night). Too bad the government can only deliver electricity about half the day.

 

5) Internet.  It became legal for non-academic Cuban citizens to have access to the internet only a few years ago.  It still isn’t wide spread.  Very few homes have their own connections.  In order to get on the net, Cubans have to buy prepaid internet access cards.  The cards have a WiFi code.  The large hotels and government buildings have WiFi that can be accessed by using the codes.  Huge numbers of Cubans crowded the sidewalks in front of all the large hotels, using the WiFi to access the web on mobile devices.

 

6) The cars.  I expected to see some vintage cars, but I was surprised to note that roughly half of the cars on the road dated back to the 1950s.  It was like a time warp.  The taxis we took were a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Aire, a 1957 Oldsmobile, 1953 Buick, and a 1957 Ford  station wagon that looked like the Ghostbusters car.  To balance it out, we also rode in a 1980s Korean Tico and a 1972 Russian Lada.

 

All of these are taxi cabs waiting for fares outside of one of the larger hotels in Havana

All of these are taxi cabs waiting for fares outside of one of the larger hotels in Havana

 

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Our ’57 Oldsmobile convertible taxi

 

Some of the old cars on the street in Old Havana

Some of the old cars on the street in Old Havana

 

7) The friendly people.  I expected some anti-American sentiment, but got absolutely none.  The people were all very friendly and amazingly helpful.  That was a pleasant surprise.  The only anti-American ideas we experienced were in the “Museum of the Revolution”, an ode to Fidel Castro’s wonderfully benevolent communist policies.  Lots of the descriptions of the museum items had a distinctly anti-American slant.  Fortunately for us, the official government opinion wasn’t embraced by the citizenry.

 

A painting in the Museum of the Revolution entitled "Corner of the Idiots."

A painting in the Museum of the Revolution entitled “Corner of the Idiots.”

 

You don't like our presidents, that's fine (I don't either). No matter how bad they have been, they still don't even compare to Che.

You don’t like our presidents, that’s fine (I don’t either). No matter how bad they have been, they still don’t even come close to the barbarity of Che.

 

Since most of you are reading my page for insights into self defense and firearms, I’ll mention a couple of more things that may be interesting to you….

 

We had absolutely no fear of crime while we were there.  No one was aggressive.  We didn’t see any drug addicts or violent drunk people.  Everyone smiled and was extremely mellow.  That isn’t common in many Latin American countries.  Another thing you don’t often see in Latin America is a police force that isn’t corrupt.  I spoke to several locals about the police.  The general consensus was that the police officers were often lazy (I might be too if I was making $30 a month), but they didn’t shake citizens down for bribe money.  Not a single person I talked to said anything bad about the national police.

 

The cops were extremely visible in all the tourist areas.  They carried full duty belts (nylon) like we do here (another rarity in Latin America).  They carried a pistol, two spare mags, handcuffs, pepper spray, and PR-24 batons.  Some of the cops were wearing empty holsters as if they didn’t have enough pistols to fully equip all the officers.

 

Most of the cops carried Beretta 92 automatics.  Occasionally I would spot an officer who wasn’t packing a Beretta.  Those guys were all carrying Soviet Makarovs!  I certainly didn’t expect that pistol to be carried down there.   It’s an odd choice for a police duty rig.

 

Not much else to report.  I’m glad we went and had the experience of seeing Cuba before it fully opens to American tourists.  Seeing the friendly local people practicing amazing resiliency in the face of brutal living conditions isn’t something we get to experience every day.  If you have dreams of traveling to Cuba, do your homework.  They don’t make it easy for tourists.  The difficulty is part of the appeal.  It’s cool to experience something new.  If you aren’t looking for a challenge, you can always take the family down to Disneyland instead.

 

 

The only gun I got to play with on vacation.

The only gun I got to play with on vacation.

 

The Cubans like their canons. Probably wouldn't be my first choice for a lunch table.

The Cubans like their canons. Probably wouldn’t be my first choice for a lunch table.

Mexican Street Attacks

Mexican Street Attacks 320 310 Greg Ellifritz

Borderland Beat is reporting a new trend that Mexican criminals are using to rob and kidnap motorists.  Read about it at the link below.

 

Puebla: Citizen Motorists Warn of Popular Assault Method

 

The criminals know they can’t do much to you when you are traveling 60mph in an automobile.  They have to make you get out of your car to victimize you.  Don’t play the game.

If someone throws anything on your windshield to obscure your vision, don’t stop.  Even if you have to drive with your head out of the window to navigate, do so.  Drive a few miles away.  Watch for anyone following you.  If you aren’t being followed, stop to clean your windshield in a busy public location.

 

 

Slip Joint Travel Knives

Slip Joint Travel Knives 150 150 Greg Ellifritz

Having at least one slip-joint (non-locking) folding knife is a good idea.  Lockblade folders are outlawed in many countries (especially in Europe).  Having an innocuous looking slip joint will give you better protection than using your fingernails.  I prefer to carry the Spyderco UK Penknife when I’m in Europe.

 

Learn about more non-locking options in the article below.

 

Slip-Joint Knives Buyer’s Guide

 

 

Travel Log- Mexico (and almost Cuba)

Travel Log- Mexico (and almost Cuba) 885 594 Greg Ellifritz

*My Travel Log series describes various past travel adventures and provides perspective about living and traveling in different countries.  This particular segment covers a trip I took to Mexico in May of 2015.

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A quick little travel narrative for you today…

 

I had a few days of vacation planned last week.  Our goal was to get to Cuba, but it’s difficult to arrange a flight.  There aren’t any direct flights out of America for tourists, so we would have to fly through Canada or Mexico.  Further complicating the matter is the fact that US banks won’t accept credit card charges from Cuban companies because of the trade embargo.  We couldn’t just get on Cubana airlines’ website and book tickets; we would have to use an international travel agency to book the flight.

 

I contacted a few travel agencies out of Canada.  They all told me that the flight that I wanted (from Cancun to Havana) was booked full on the dates we needed.  The only option was to show up at the Cancun airport with cash and hope to catch a standby seat.  We decided to give it a try, with backup reservations at a hotel in Cancun in case we couldn’t get on the plane.  No luck.  Not even a standby ticket available.  We were stuck in Mexico for five days…not really a bad fate to be delivered.

 

We stayed at a hotel near the northern-most end of the hotel zone far away from the idiot tourists that populate the majority of the island.  We took a sailboat ride, visited the largest Mayan pyramid site in the Yucatan and lounged around every day on the beach.  We took the local “chicken bus” into downtown every night and ate at some fantastic local Mexican restaurants and visited the local carnival nightly for street food and desserts.  It was quite a peaceful and relaxing trip.

 

We didn’t talk to many Americans on the trip, as most of the guests at our hotel were Mexican or European.  Those Americans we spoke with seemed excessively fearful of being in Mexico.  They wouldn’t leave the relatively American -feeling hotel zone out of safety concerns.  They missed some amazing opportunities to experience another culture by fearfully hiding in the hotel zone.

 

Despite all of the media attention about Cartel violence, the Mexican states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan are quite safe.  The Mexican government does everything it can to protect the tourists as they provide a significant boost to the economy.  Beyond that, many of the hotels and restaurants in the hotel zone are at least partially owned by cartel bosses and used to launder money.  If tourists got killed with any frequency, those money laundering opportunities would disappear.  We never saw a hint of violence or any type of threat.

 

We did see some of the local police at work.  A drunk guy at a downtown festival was getting arrested one night.  The two local cops humanely lifted him into the bed of their pickup truck and handcuffed him to an iron ring welded onto the side of the bed.  Not quite up to American law enforcement standards, but they didn’t mistreat their prisoner.

 

I spent a lot of time talking to the locals about police corruption and cartel violence while we were there.  There are both local police and Federal police.  According to the residents, the local police are often uneducated and usually quite corrupt.  The Federal police seemed to have a slightly better reputation.

 

Look closely at this police substation in downtown Cancun. There is a female police officer passed out asleep with her head on the desk...must be a pretty dangerous spot.

Look closely at this police substation in downtown Cancun. There is a female police officer passed out asleep with her head on the desk…must be a pretty dangerous spot.

 

Some of the local cops were armed and some weren’t.  According to one former cop I spoke with, the locals have the choice of being armed or unarmed.  The armed officers have to go through a psychological test that scares away some of the officers from the armed jobs.  The locals carried a bunch of different pistols…mostly Glocks, M&Ps, and Third generation S&W autos.  I didn’t see any spare magazines and all of them carried no-name cheap nylon holsters.  The only other gear they had on their belts was a single pair of handcuffs.

 

The Federal police manned several of the roadblocks we went through.  They were kitted up with rifle plates, drop leg holsters and full duty belts for their Glocks.  Several carried four spare pistol magazines and about half had a long gun of some sort.  I saw a lot of M-4s (no optics), a few FALs, and one Uzi carbine.  Occasionally we would see military units with M-4s and belt fed machine guns mounted on the back of their pickup trucks.

 

Fortunately on this trip, we didn’t encounter any cartel hit squads.  On a previous trip down to the area a few years ago, a taxi I was taking was intercepted and passed on the highway by two pickup trucks full of cartel assassins loaded down with M-16 A1 rifles (likely from the American military).  The cab driver explained that they acted as a cartel quick reaction force to attack any of the soldiers or cops who dared to interdict any of the cartel drug shipments.  Fortunately, they didn’t have any interest in a couple of tourists and they drove right past us.

 

The cartels down in Mexico create a complicated issue.  Like in some American ghettos and in the favelas of Brazil, they drug economy has some benefits for the local communities.  The drug dealing and manufacturing provide jobs for the locals.  Cartel bosses build and staff schools and hospitals that the government can’t afford in order to garner additional favors from the local populace.  Many of the locals are frightened by the cartel violence, but depend on the cartels to improve their standard of living.  It makes it tough for them to be eradicated because they are valued (while being hated at the same time) by the locals for their community contributions.

 

If you are interested in travel to Mexico and plan on traveling to the Caribbean coast, you likely won’t have any trouble as long as you stay away from the drug dealers and cartels.  Smile a lot.  Be polite.  Try to learn a little Spanish.  Read my book.  You’ll be fine.

 

View of Isla Mujeres from our sailboat

View of Isla Mujeres from our sailboat

 

We’ll try for Cuba again next year.

Baggage Claim

Baggage Claim 500 375 Greg Ellifritz

In this post, Ed talks about some of the dangers present in the baggage claim area of a third world airport.  He’s right.  Lots of shady characters hang out there.  Be careful.

 

Baggage Claim

 

Two more tips:

1- Keep you baggage claim tickets.  In third world countries there are often security guards who compare the tags on your luggage with the tickets as you exit the baggage claim area.  Not having the claim ticket will cause a big hassle.

 

2- As soon as you clear baggage claim, rip off the luggage tags and throw them away.  You don’t want scam artists working the airport to know your name or the flight you were on.

 

In some countries, criminals will casually survey the luggage tags, and then google the names.  If they find someone who is wealthy or has a prominent position in a large company, they will follow that person and “arrange” transportation for them in the taxi queue.  That transportation will be taking them straight into a robbery or kidnapping.

 

 

Travel Log- Iceland

Travel Log- Iceland 940 1111 Greg Ellifritz

*My Travel Log series describes various past travel adventures and provides perspective about living and traveling in different countries.  This particular segment covers a trip I took to Iceland in March  of 2017.

 

It was Lauren’s birthday last week, so I took her to Iceland for a long weekend to celebrate.  It was a country that both of us were interested in visiting and one that neither of us had already traveled to.  She found a whirlwind four-day tour of the country and we booked it.  It was a fun trip.  Icelandic people are incredibly friendly and the scenery is unmatched.  It was truly stunning in its desolation and stark landscapes.

 

We took an overnight flight to Reykjavik and started our day as soon as we arrived at 6:30 am.  No time for jet lag in our life!  From the airport we went straight to the Viking history museum for breakfast and a history lesson.

 

Doing what I do best

 

After breakfast we headed to the country’s largest volcanic hot spring, which happened to be only a couple miles from the airport.  The Blue Lagoon hot spring is a shallow volcanic pool heated by natural hot springs.  It was huge…a couple hundred meters on each side.  The pool ranged in temperature from 90 degrees to about 110 degrees depending on which spring fed the area where you were bathing.  We sat in the hot water for an hour or so to loosen up after our flight and then we were off.

 

Blue Lagoon volcanic hot springs.

 

We visited a small fishing village in Grindavik Harbor and talked to a cafe owner about the fishing trade there over an amazing bowl of lobster soup.  According to the cafe owner, fishing is a really big deal in Iceland.  The fishermen on the bigger boats can bring in over $200,000 in salary for the 9-10 month fishing season.  The villages that support the fishing trade are the most financially secure places to live.

 

After lunch, we hiked through the bubbling mudpots and fumaroles at Krisuvik.  The water comes out of the ground at over 200 degrees and reeks of sulfer.  It made for an interesting walk.

 

In the stinky steam

 

After a nice walk through the mudpots we went caving in a 2000-year old volcanic lava tube cave.  The cave was about a half mile long and about 15 meters under the ground.  It was slightly challenging to get through in some spots, but was very cool to see.

 

Entrance to the cave

 

After spelunking, we arrived at a guest house on a country farm a couple hours outside the city.  We ate a fine dinner of locally raised beef and lamb and then went outside and got a captivating view of the northern lights.  I had seen them once before (in Alaska), but they were much more visible in Iceland.

This is what the Northern Lights looked like. Unfortunately, none of our photos came out so you’ll have to look at a photo from the tour company’s website

 

We started off day two with a hike around the Skogafoss waterfall and then ate lunch at a nearby farm.  The main menu was farm raised lamb, but we started with a local delicacy as an appetizer…15 day aged raw horse meat.  It was surprisingly tender and tasty.

 

Lauren at the waterfall

 

After lunch, we decided to attempt what may have been the stupidest move of our trip.  We wanted to hike out to the beach to see the remains of a 1973 plane crash.  It was about a four-mile round trip walk.  No problem.  Until we arrived.  It was 35 degrees, pouring rain with a wind gusting to 80 mph.  It was the most insane hike I’ve ever done.

 

Lauren and I stayed warm, because we were well prepared and had some good outdoor gear.  It was still miserable.  Some of our group did the trek in blue jeans and tennis shoes.  Those folks were dangerously close to hypothermia after a couple hours outside in the chaotic weather conditions.

 

Cold and windy hike

 

The wreckage of the crashed plane

 

After the hike we ate dinner at a nice restaurant in the town of Selfoss and went back to our dorms at the farm.

 

Day Three started out with a hike around the 6000-year old volcanic Kerio Crater Lake.  The views were breathtaking.

 

Kerio Crater Lake

 

We then visited the Haukandular geothermal area and saw some of the amazing geysers.  The first geyser ever described was in the area.  Local explores named it “Geysir” and all other volcanic water eruptions on the planet have been called “geysers” since.

 

After seeing the spurting geysers, we had lunch at a geothermal bakery.  The restaurant cooks bread in clay pots that they bury in the ground that is heated by geothermal waters to about 200 degrees.  It takes 24-hours to cook the bread using only heat from the ground.

 

After lunch, we visited the historic Pingvellir National Park, the location of the seismic rift between the North American and European tectonic plates.  It was also the location of Iceland’s first democratic parliament in the 12th century.

The seismic rift

 

We ended up the day walking around the city center of Reykjavik and going to dinner at a 11th century priory located on an island just outside the city center.  On day four we woke up, toured some of the museums in Reykjavik, and then boarded our afternoon flight home.

 

I normally talk about the local crime trends and weapons carried by the local cops in articles like these.  I don’t have much to say about that topic today.  Iceland is rated as the world’s safest country.  There is almost no crime.  In fact, despite a population of over 300,000 people, there are only about 150 people imprisoned in Iceland at any given time.  Citizens can own guns there, but mostly for hunting.

 

Semi-automatic pistols and rifles are outlawed.  The only handguns that Icelanders can own are rimfire target pistols.  There are minimal restrictions on hunting rifles and shotguns.  Anyone who owns more than three firearms must legally have a lockable safe in which to store them.  There are no concealed carry permits.  Even the carrying of pepper spray is a felony in the country.

 

We only saw two police officers on our entire trip.  One was armed with an ASP baton and handcuffs.  His partner has a similar loadout, but also had an attachment on his belt to accept a drop leg handgun holster.  He was not carrying the gun at the time we saw him.  Only a small subset of the Icelandic cops carry guns, and even those guys don’t carry pistols on a constant basis.

 

Overall, we had a wonderful time on our short trip.  If you plan on going, I have one caution.  Iceland is very expensive.  It’s an island nation that has to import most of its food and building products.  The minimum wage in Iceland is about $36,000 a year.  There is a 26% sales tax on everything except food (11% on food) and a 40% tax on large imported good like automobiles.  Gasoline is $6 a gallon.  A beer at a local bar costs about $12.  A decent restaurant lunch for two runs between $50 and $75.  It isn’t cheap to travel there.

 

If you don’t mind shelling out the money for the trip, you’ll find Iceland a remarkable place to visit.  If you enjoy the outdoors, the hiking is truly unbeatable.

 

OK, time to shave my Viking beard and go to work.

 

 

The ISIS Bus Attack

The ISIS Bus Attack 150 150 Greg Ellifritz

 

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Although it went virtually unmentioned in the US national media, ISIS perpetrated a vicious massacre against members of a different Islamic sect in Pakistan.  The terrorists targeted a bus full of Shiite Muslims on their way to a community center.  Six terrorists used motorcycles to ride along side the bus and shoot the passengers. They then boarded the bus and systematically shot all of the passengers in the head.  At last count 43 people were killed and an additional 13 were wounded.  For more details of the attack, read THIS ARTICLE.

 

Why is this important to my readers?  Two reasons:  One is that some of my readers use public transportation in foreign countries and need to be prepared for such an attack.  The second is that Islamist terrorists worldwide use the battleground in the middle east to refine terrorism tactics, techniques, and procedures so that they are more successful when utilized in other locations (like here in the USA).  Unless our society takes measures to prevent it, what we are currently seeing in Pakistan will someday be used against our own citizens here in the USA.  It’s prudent to be prepared.

 

Take a minute to think it through.  What would you do if you were a passenger in a bus that came under attack from a band of gun-toting motorcycle riders?  It’s likely that the six attackers were doubled up on three bikes so that the driver could maneuver, allowing the passenger to fire.  How would those three bikes most effectively stop the bus and perpetrate their attack?  How would you respond?  Here are some things to think about…

 

1) Don’t stop moving.  In an attack like this, the moving bus is the best weapon available.  If you are a passenger, don’t let the driver stop.  Even if you need to threaten the driver with force, make sure he keeps the bus up to speed.  Ideally, he should be trying to strike the motorcycle riders as he makes his escape.

 

The terrorists may intentionally target the driver with the first bursts of gunfire, forcing him to crash and stop.  Are you prepared to drag the driver’s body out of the seat and drive the bus yourself?  If you are sitting close enough to the driver, that may be the most successful intervention you can pull off.  Waiting until all six guys are on the bus and firing doesn’t leave you with many viable options.

 

2) Choose your seats wisely.  In addition to being seated near the driver as mentioned above, sitting close to one of the exits is beneficial.  It’s likely that these terrorists didn’t execute the attack perfectly.  There may have been a brief escape opportunity during an early part of the attack.  If you aren’t sitting near an exit, you won’t be able to get off quickly.

 

Aisle seats are important on public transportation.  If you plan on escaping or fighting, you’ll need quick access to the aisle.  Climbing over two other sleeping passengers to make your escape is less than optimal.

 

Don’t forget that some of the widows serve as emergency exits.  Don’t be afraid to break one with the little hammer mounted nearby and make your escape if things look nasty.

 

3) Block the aisles.  In a bus, attackers can be easily thwarted by physically blocking the aisles.  It’s tough for the terrorists’ teammates to get around you to join the fight or to victimize other passengers if you are fighting the lead attacker in the aisle.  In multiple attacker situations, it’s generally a good plan to “stack” (line up) your attackers so that you only have to fight one at a time.  There’s no place easier to do that than a bus aisle.  Don’t stay in your seat.  If you are going to fight, get to the aisle and make the terrorists fight there.  Even if you get killed, blocking the rest of the terrorists from penetrating deeper into the bus may facilitate some other passengers’ escapes.

 

4) You may have to play dead.  Although I generally don’t think that playing dead is usually a very successful tactic in the event of an active shooter event, it has worked in some past incidents.  If I couldn’t get out of the seat or I was too late and multiple shooters were already in the aisle spraying rounds with an AK-47, I might hit the ground and play dead until I get a better opportunity to act.  Draw whatever weapon you have available and wait for one of the terrorists to walk past your seat.  Attack him as soon as he passes by shooting him in the back of the head or bring him down by stabbing him in the leg.  Get control of his weapon and go to work on his buddies.

 

This may not have a high likelihood of success, but it seems like a better option than wildly charging several rifle-armed gunmen if you are unarmed.

 

One final thing to note: At least one of the terrorists in this attack was wearing a police uniform.  This is becoming a go-to strategy for Islamic terrorists.  I’ve written about this tactic extensively in past articles but it bears mentioning again.  Don’t make assumptions when you see someone in a uniform.  It might be a ruse that is designed to make you hesitate just long enough to get you killed.

 

 

 

 

Travel Log- Cartels, Drugs, and Human Trafficking in a Vacation Paradise

Travel Log- Cartels, Drugs, and Human Trafficking in a Vacation Paradise 599 410 Greg Ellifritz

*My Travel Log series describes various past travel adventures and provides perspective about living and traveling in different countries.  This particular segment covers a trip I took to Mexico in February of 2019.

I spent part of last week vacationing in Mexico.  I know some of you are shaking your head and saying you would never visit such a location because of the high level of cartel violence.  That tells me that you haven’t been there.

 

While there are certainly some places in Mexico that I would not visit for safety concerns, the tourist areas are actually quite safe for travelers, even if a bunch of cartel members are getting killed.  Counting the stamps in my passports shows that I’ve visited Mexico 17 times in the last 18 years.

 

I also made one visit where I hopped the border and entered illegally, but that is a story for another time.  The bottom line is that I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico.

 

I have very little security concerns about the “Riviera Maya” area between Cancun and Playa del Carmen.  Going up the peninsula from Cancun to Merida is also pretty safe, as are the ruins of Chichen Itza, the popular cenotes, Isla Holbox, and Isla Mujeres.  Those are most of the places you’d want to stay on the Caribbean coast.

 

Why the conflicting information?  Why do I think it’s safe when the government and all media sources are constantly telling us how dangerous Mexico is?

 

The Mexican drug cartels are battling each other over drug distribution territories.  They are also trying to expand their income sources by extorting business owners and government officials for “protection money.”  Besides defining their drug selling territories, they are also fighting about which cartel gets to extort which business area.

 

That means a lot of people involved in the drug gangs are getting killed.  When a cartel member gets killed, the victim cartel strikes back against the attacking cartel, killing both cartel members as well as their families.  Businessmen and government employees who don’t cooperate with the extortion are getting killed.

 

A map of the territories controlled by each major drug cartel.
From Statfor.

 

Guess who is not getting killed?  The tourists.  While there is a small chance of getting caught up in the crossfire of a cartel gun battle, that risk is also present in the gang territories of all the big cities in America.  So long as the tourist doesn’t get involved in drug sales, doesn’t openly insult cartel members, and stays away from prostitutes, the chance of the tourist getting killed in Mexico is close to zero.

 

Why are the tourists safe?

 

It’s because the drug cartels need the tourists to keep coming.  Who do you think owns those large all-inclusive resorts?  The drug cartels and their families.  They use those huge tourist resorts to launder their drug money.  If the tourists stop coming to Mexico, it becomes much harder for the cartels to operate.  They have a very clear motivation to keep the tourists safe.

 

Back to last week’s trip.  Even though we only spent four days in the country, I learned a massive amount of how the drug cartels operate and all about the local drug markets, cartel assassins, and human trafficking rings.  All were openly on display for anyone who was alert enough to take notice.  Ninety-nine percent of the tourists were too engrossed in their margaritas to really see what was going on right under their noses.

 

When we normally spend time in Mexico, we will rent an Air BnB condo or stay at a very small resort far outside the tourist zones.  We like a quieter and more local feel than what the big all inclusive resorts provide.  Because of that, I was unaware of a lot of the drug and human trafficking activity at the larger resorts.  I never saw any of it on previous trips precisely because we stayed in areas with few tourists.  I learned that American tourists play a much larger role in funding the cartels than I had previously realized.

 

On this trip we decided we wanted to make it easy as we were only going to be spending four days in the country.  We booked at a very large and fairly swanky all-inclusive resort hotel.  It was a wonderful location and we got all the beach and relaxation we had been looking for.  We also got an education about how drug sales work south of the border.

 

Over the past few years I’ve been working hard to increase my awareness levels and intuition.  I’ve been following some shamanic pathways I learned in the jungles of Peru and some exercises I’ve picked up in books.

 

Before you start thinking I’m crazy and spouting off woo-woo bullshit, consider that warriors throughout history have intensely studied the art of intuition and awareness in both time and space.  Here’s one of my favorite quotes on the topic from a 19th century Chinese Tai Chi master:

“If the opponent does not move, then I do not move.
At the opponent’s slightest move, I move first.”
– Wu Yuxiang

 

Master Yuxiang cultivated his awareness and intuition for decades to reach the point he writes about above.  I’m just a beginner, but I’m coming to understand the importance of cultivating my intuition as well as the advantages a high intuitive ability can bring to a defensive combatant.

 

Wu Yuxiang

 

One day on this vacation, I spent quite a bit of time working on some of the drills I use to refine my intuition.  I went to the beach and sat there.  I people watched all day long.  No book, no phone, no digital entertainment.  I was trying to be focused on living in the present moment.  As a result, I saw a lot of things that most tourists miss.

 

There is a massive complex operation uniting both drug dealers and their customers on the hotel zone beaches in Cancun.  After a day’s worth of observation and talking to a few of my fellow American travelers who had made some drug purchases the previous day, I was truly enlightened.

 

If you are a tourist who wants to buy drugs in Mexico, one of the easiest way of doing it is to ask a waiter at your hotel.  He can usually facilitate the deal for a generous trip.  I saw and heard  several such requests to our waiters during my day of observation.

 

One of the other ways to acquire a drug supply is through the local drug dealers on the beach.  The dealers walk back and forth on the beach pretending to sell some type of product.  All beaches are public in Mexico so these guys have essentially free reign to walk up and down the beach selling beach towels, sunscreen, sunglasses, and jewelry.

 

I very quickly noticed that the folks selling sunglasses and beach towels walked past our place on the beach at a hustling pace.  We seldom saw the same vendor more than once or twice a day.  These walking salesmen need to go where there is a market for their wares.  If people aren’t interested the first time you present them with your products, they probably won’t suddenly want what you are selling a couple of hours later.  The salesman keeps moving down the beach to attract new customers.

 

I observed an anomaly.  The guys selling boxes of Cuban cigars on the beach came back every 20 minutes or so.  I never saw them actually sell a single cigar.  How do these guys stay in business when there aren’t any customers interested in their wares?  It’s easy.  They aren’t selling cigars.  They are taking drug orders from the tourists.

 

The drug sales networks utilize the same tactics that terrorist cells use to keep from generating too much attention.  Also similar to a terrorist cell, the dealers employ lots of “cut outs” to reduce the damage should one of the dealers get arrested.  They compartmentalize their operations so that each individual player doesn’t know much about the entire operation.   Everything was on a “need to know” basis.

 

Here’s how the process works…

 

– You tell the cigar salesman what you want (I saw deals involving marijuana, powder cocaine, and heroin).

– The cigar salesman gives you a price, but doesn’t take your money.  He tells you to pay the person who approaches you and asks you for money in a few minutes.  He then saunters off.

– Another beach salesperson will then walk up to you under the pretense of selling you some insignificant trinket.  He takes your money for the drugs.  When the money changes hands the cigar salesman won’t even be on the same beach.  Plausible deniability for him if the deal is under surveillance.

– Within 30-60 minutes a third salesman drops off your drugs.

– Finally, if you need money back in change after the transaction, a fourth person will bring it to you soon after the drug delivery man has cleared the scene.  No one in the distribution chain is ever at the same place at the same time

 

There was quite a bit of drama involved in this process.  It seemed that only the cigar salesman speaks fluent English.  The dudes who pick up the money or drop off the drugs didn’t speak English at all.  They aren’t helpful if you have any questions.  I saw a couple different people getting themselves worked up about their deals.

 

One older white dude literally threw a temper tantrum on the beach because it took about 30 minutes for his cocaine to be delivered.  He was convinced that the dealer had ripped him off.  Another woman didn’t immediately get her change back after the drugs were delivered.  She was very upset until the “change guy” walked up and provided her with correct change.  It was a completely ludicrous scene to watch unfold.

 

I struck up a conversation with another hotel guest as he smoked a joint on the beach.  He filled me in on some additional details about how the game works.

 

According to my new friend, the cartels really don’t want to be in the business of making small scale marijuana deliveries.  Because of this fact, they intentionally limit the supply of weed to the dealers.  They want the dealers selling the cocaine and heroin instead of marijuana.  By noon each day, there was no weed available to purchase anywhere on the beach.  If you want to smoke, you better hit the dealer up early.

 

The cartels also have a price fixing effect on drug sales.  They set the prices.  The individual dealers aren’t allowed to either up charge or discount the product.  I didn’t inquire as to the prices of the hard drugs, but the smoking hotel guest told me that the going rate for subpar quality marijuana was expensive at $100 per quarter ounce.

 

Lots of drugs and cash moving around.  How do the cartels protect it and avoid getting ripped off by a competing gang?  They use undercover “security” or sicarios.  “Security” consisted of mostly Eastern European men patrolling around the property.  They always moved in pairs.  While they wore swimming attire, they never got in the pool or ocean.  Both men on each team carried heavy backpacks (presumably full of weapons of some type).

 

They looked low key, but it ended up being obvious that they weren’t hotel guests.  Each guest at the all-inclusive hotel had to wear a bracelet so that the restaurants wouldn’t serve free meals to people walking in off the beach.  “Security” was trying hard to fit in by acting like guests, but they missed one key detail.  None of them were wearing the hotel bracelet.

 

The men appeared to be capable and fit.  They patrolled in a purposeful random pattern, with two pairs constantly “on-duty” at any given time.

 

When I noted the lack of wrist bands, I started looking for that with other guests.  I quickly noticed a male/female couple.  They were sitting on the beach directly under the lifeguard chair.  They had neither bracelets or swimsuits.  They were speaking what sounded like Russian.  Both look like they were going through heroin withdrawal.

 

A waiter “placed” these two in their position.  The lifeguard kept an eye on them.  They never once got in the water or ordered a drink.  After a few hours, the two were led away by a couple of the “security” men.

 

I have no idea what those two were actually doing, but I would guess that the couple was somehow being “trafficked” from one location to another.  They were using the beach as a well-protected place to hide in plain sight.

 

All in all, I think my observation/intuition practice that day was immensely productive.  It’s truly astonishing to really see what so many other folks fail to observe.  There is a baffling amount of information available to you if you just take the time to notice it.

 

It might initially seem strange to say it, but seeing all this stuff actually made me feel a bit safer.  I knew that the drug lords want to keep tourists coming in.  But I didn’t know how much income those tourists also provided directly to the cartels in terms of illicit drug sales.

 

The “cigar salesmen” were very busy all day long.  We tourists are literally the geese who lay golden eggs.  The cartel bosses would likely do just about anything possible to ensure that the tourists are happy and safe.  There’s too much money to lose if the tourists stop coming to Cancun.

 

 

 

South American Crime Prevention Advice

South American Crime Prevention Advice 620 465 Greg Ellifritz

Everything you need to know about keeping safe comes down to recognizing toads and papaya.

 

I was reminded of this fact when I read the article linked below.  Check it out.  The woman’s partner won a lawsuit settlement.  He posted some pictures of the cash settlement on social media.  Some bad dudes saw the money and decided to rob him.  Three people broke into the man’s house, killed his female partner and stole all the money.

Woman shot dead after money flaunted on social media

 

What does that have to do with toads and papaya?

 

I spend a lot of time in South America.  Each country down there has its own cute or funny sayings.  They are called dichos in Spanish.  These dichos are usually witty statements that offer life advice.  I’ve grown fond of learning some of the dichos from the countries I visit.

 

In Peru there is a saying; “Hay sapos.”  Literally it means “There are toads.”

 

The “toads” my Peruvian friends are talking about are people who silently observe your activity and provide that information to others.  There are always “toads” watching your every move.

 

Peruvians use “hay sapos” as a caution to people handling money in public.  There are always “toads” watching for easy victims.  You may not see the sapos, but rest assured that they will be present.  Exercise caution.  The toads may not rob you, but they will certainly provide your information to someone who will for a little bit of cash.

 

If the guy in the link above had recognized that there are always “toads” watching, he probably wouldn’t have carelessly flashed his wad of money on social media.

 

A second pertinent dicho comes from Colombia.

 

The locals there have a descriptive term for people who do things which make it easy for a criminal to victimize them. Colombians call it “dar papaya.”

 

The term literally means “to give papaya.” In other words, you are so vulnerable it’s like giving the criminal a sweet treat. It’s the Colombian equivalent of the term “like taking candy from a baby.”  You are making it exceptionally easy for a criminal to target you when you “dar papaya.”

 

That’s what the guy did when he flashed his money.  The sapos saw his post and informed the robbers.  The robbers thought he was an easy target.  He gave them some papaya.  They took it and ran.

 

 

The next time you post on social media, think about the toads.  Don’t give them any papaya.

 

 

 

Travel Log- Dominican Republic

Travel Log- Dominican Republic 940 705 Greg Ellifritz

*My Travel Log series describes various past travel adventures and provides perspective about living and traveling in different countries.  This particular segment covers my first trip to The Dominican Republic in February 2013.

 

Sosua, D.R.

 

I just got back from a quick vacation to the Dominican Republic.  Some friends visit the island every year and they invited me to go along.  I had never been there before and it sounded like fun, so I hopped on the plane.

 

It was only a five-day trip, but I had a great time.  I’ve spent lots of time in other Latin American and Caribbean countries, but it was my first time in the D.R.  The people were very friendly and my subjective impressions were that the island was safer than Jamaica, Mexico, or any of the Central American countries.

 

Me, practicing my defenses against surprise spearing elbow strikes…or maybe I’m getting a massage on the beach.

 

The only safety issues I encountered during my brief stay were driving related.  There are some crazy drivers down there!  That little island certainly ranks in the top five worst places to be on the road.  It’s every bit as bad as Cairo or Bangkok.

 

There were fewer police patrols, roadblocks, and armed security guards than in most Latin countries.  The only obvious signs of crime that I witnessed were the massive numbers of prostitutes walking the street in downtown Sosua in the evening.  I was surprised that there were more street walking ladies in that town than even the busiest red-light districts in Thailand.

 

The trip was pretty short, so there weren’t any epic adventures to report.  I stayed on the beach in Puerto Plata and visited Navarrete and Sosua nearby.  One of my friends is planning on importing his own brand of Dominican cigars, so we went to visit a local cigar factory where he plans to source them.  Although I don’t smoke, it was cool getting a personalized tour from the factory manager and learning how cigars are made.

 

Inside the Dominican cigar factory

I didn’t get too much into the gun situation down there, but I did talk to a few local gun owners about firearms laws and access on the island.  There are two gun permits issued by the government.  One allows you to own a gun, keep it in your house, and carry it in your car.  The other allows you to carry the gun on your person in public.  Both permits can be acquired by any Dominican citizen or legal resident.

 

One of the taxi drivers with whom I spoke had both.  He said that each permit cost around $200 US and both required a police background check, drug test, and psychological exam before issuance.  There is no training requirement for either.  The driver said that it is fairly easy for anyone to get the ownership permit, assuming they have the money (which is no small obstacle in a country where the average annual income is less than $5000 US).  The carry permit requires a demonstrated “need”, generally having an occupation which makes one prone to being robbed or attacked.

 

Although I didn’t get to visit a gun store, two guys I talked to said that legal guns were extremely expensive.  They both quoted figures of $6,000-$7,000 US for a legally purchased Glock pistol.  According to them, a cheap .38 revolver costs around $2000 US if purchased in a gun store.  They  told me that most guns in the country are illegally purchased, having been smuggled in over the Haitian border.  On the streets, these smuggled guns go for $500-$1000 US…far cheaper than their legal counterparts.

 

The police are nationalized and they carried what appeared to be 3rd Generation Smith and Wesson 9mm autopistols in cheap nylon holsters.  None of the cops I saw carried a long gun (although I saw a couple of M-16 A1s carried by guards on a military base) or spare magazines.  I saw a couple of pistol-gripped pump shotguns carried by security guards posted outside some banks.  All of the other armed security guards I saw were carrying beat up 4″ .38 revolvers and no spare ammo.

 

I only got to see a tiny part of the country, but I had a good experience.  Their tourist economy has taken a hit recently and things are cheap.  Consider it for your next trip…I’ll be going back again!

 

Half a chicken, rice, beans and a big beer. Six of us ate this lunch at a roadside restaurant in Navarrete. The total cost was $22.75.