Monday, January 16, 2017

Cuba Part I: Havana Nights!

Cuba! The forbidden country of mystery! 

I really loved my time there and will definitely return, though I've got some strong opinions about why people should/should not travel there. The best part of my trip was staying with families and getting to know Cubans. This place is a living experiment in socialism, and it’d be a disservice if you’re not doing the educational tours and chatting with people who live under the revolution.

If you're just planning to hang at a beach resort (which is breaking your visa requirement, though no one actually checks) or trying to Instagram everything (good luck with scarce Internet), maybe choose a different destination. Also be aware of the impact to your visit, as this recent NY Times article calls out, tourism is taking food from residents, and many can't afford higher priced produce. Resources are limited and you're taking a slice of the pie. Staying at hotels and eating at restaurants just puts more money into the hands of the government, and not helping people directly. 

Overall the food is crap, the country is huge with bad roads and old cars, you'll need to plan how much cash to take (extra penalty on changing USD - I took CAD), and it's hard to find bottled water. But it's lovely if you can overcome some little hurdles with planning and managing expectations and you're willing to dive in and talk to people. 

We did all our planning with Cuba Travel Services, since US commercial flights hadn't started yet. They arranged our charter flights and our visas. If you've going now, make sure you've got the visa situation squared away. I hear that some airlines assist in the visa process, and some don't, as one friend found out the hard way in December. He showed up to the airport expecting to get his visa there on site, and he didn't and didn't get to go.

Sergio and I headed over to MIA on Saturday morning and had to hunt a little bit for the check in counter for Cuba Travel Services. We found chaos and three lines - one to check in for the flight, one to check your visa, and one to pay for your bags and get a seat assignment. There was a problem with our planes AC and they had to swap aircraft, which I thought was an ominous sign. Thankfully nothing ominous happened the rest of the trip.

We landed after a short flight and all the Cubans clapped. I was also amazed at how much stuff they were bringing with them - anything from Krispy Kreme donuts to large TVs to side tables. How do they transport all this stuff and pay for it to come back?

We landed and exited onto the tarmac. So hot and humid. And why is the first place that always greets you in a new country the bathroom? Cuba's bathroom smelled bad, didn't have a toilet seat (recurring theme of the country) and a lady asks you for a dollar in exchange for a couple sheets of toilet paper. I also didn't want to wash my hands in the clogged sink full of yellow brown liquid.

My luggage showed up pretty quickly, but Sergio's took about an hour. Once we walked outside, of course we were accosted by taxi and money changer folks. Large black market exists to change money, but once we told them we had Canadian and not US, they directed us to the official stand. I was already in a cab with our stuff due to the haste of an eager driver, but Sergio jumped out and ran back into the airport to change his funds. We did not change mine and that will come into play later.

On the way into Havana - so many signs of revolutionaries and socialism. Kinda like whoa - is this real?

Hasta la victoria siempre!

We had booked an Airbnb place in advance in the Vedado neighborhood, which is full of older colonial homes. Airbnb does some extra scrutiny for Cuba bookings, but it's easy enough. However, some Cubans don't have reliable access to check their messages and may only check once a week, so don't depend on regular correspondence with your host. Even better - don't book anything in advance and just show up in Cuba. Everyone has a guy for anything you need, and many people rent out rooms - there's a symbol on the house that will let you know. If the person you talk to doesn't have a room available, they will know someone who does and will help you find one. Cubans are great and will work the system for you. Of course as tourism rises from the US, that may get more difficult, but in smaller cities it's totally worth it to just walk through town and ask. More fun to go this route, especially if you speak Spanish.

Our cab took us to the right street and we found our house number but weren't sure where to go since the front of the house looked like it was under construction. I walked down an alley and asked a lady via an open window, and she pointed us to the upstairs.

Monica and Aida were nice and the room was lovely, thankfully with AC. Sergio and I relaxed for a minute then we took off exploring.  We first walked through the neighborhood and tried to find the LDS Church for the next day, but we only had an intersection as an address and didn't see anything resembling a church. We kept walking.

Street signs on the ground.

Cars are either old American cars or Russian cars.

A truck had just stopped here with food of some sort - people queued quickly to get theirs. 

So hot outside, but we walked and walked, all the way towards old Havana.

Revolution Day was coming up and all the stores had signs for Fidel in the window.

We reached the Capitol building. Very nice, as you can see, with crumbling buildings across the street. I read that building collapses are very common in Havana - it's a city that is falling apart.

We ran across a Korean girl who asked us in Spanish if we could take her photo. After some conversation in Spanish, she asked where we are from, and once we declared the US, she switched to perfect English. Then she kindly took our photo.

I'd seen online that the National Ballet of Cuba was going to be performing that evening, and when we tried to get tickets at the box office, we were told it was sold out. Of course there were scalpers right there, selling tickets for the same price. We walked over to a hotel to try and change more money so we could buy the tickets, but were unsuccessful since we were not hotel guests. It had begun to pour at this point, so we sat under the awning watching the rain and struck up a conversation with Antonio. He asked us about Hillary and Trump, and at the end asked us for money. We declined and headed back to our scalper friends to make our purchase using Sergio's funds. These were special invitation tickets for the ballet, but we hoped it would work!

Here's Antonio - finely dressed.

We had a couple hours to kill before the performance, so we found a place to eat from the guidebook. It was probably the only decent Cuban food we had at a restaurant all week. Look for Los Nardos.

We got a big meal and it was $20 for the two of us. That orange soda is delicious! No Coca Cola products here, go with the local Cuban brand.

We walked back over to the theater and crossed our fingers that our tickets would work. Our scalper friends were right there at the door to help us in case of any issue. That's the theater below.

We walked into a lobby to a private event, which is what our tickets were for. The lady taking our tickets looked really confused as two why two foreigners had tickets to this pre-show event. But whatever - we were in!

It was a beautiful show and I'm so glad we made it in! Definitely a highlight! Cubans are very proud of their art, and it shows in the investment of this company.

We walked back home along the Malecon - where everyone hangs out. It was late and dark, but many people were out. Crumbling buildings everywhere.

On Sunday morning we got up early so we could eat breakfast at our casa. But getting up early was hard! And it was so hot outside, we went back to sleep and lounged in the air conditioning. Church started at 2, so we got ready and walked over to the corner we'd tried the day before, hoping this time that we'd just 'spot the Mormons'.

It really doesn't matter where you go in the world, that game will always work. And sure enough, just before 2pm we saw a couple guys walk up the street in white shirts. We ran after them and asked if they were indeed Mormons, and of course. They showed us into an entrance on the side of the Jewish cultural center, down a ramp and a hallway. We never would've found it ourselves. About 25 people were there. We stayed for sacrament meeting and Sunday school. Everyone was so kind and I'm really glad we had that experience.

They meet in the bright blue room for church.

We walked back to our house to change clothes and ask where to buy water. I was so thirsty and it was so hot. Our hosts were a little bewildered, they didn't know exactly where to tell us to go since grocery stores and markets aren't a thing in Cuba. People get their stuff with ration cards at various stores. They pointed us in a direction towards a market, and we finally found a case of water in a gas station. Bottled water is hard to come by in Havana. Another family would later tell us that the city ran out when the first cruise ship came into town in February.

Next stop - Plaza Revolucion to see Che and Castro. It's basically a gigantic parking lot with a couple buildings with faces on it. The Marti monument across the street was closed for the day, though I don't know how you can close a statue.

Next we walked to the Columbus cemetery, which was technically closed but the gate was open a little bit. We walked in and the guard let us have 30 minutes inside after we slipped him 5 bucks.

We hadn't eaten all day and pizza looked decent enough.

We went back to the house to drop off our case of water, then decided to venture into Old Havana. We knew it was a long walk so we asked our host how much a cab should be, but even better, we were staying along a colectivo taxi route, so it was about $1 for both of us for a 15 minute ride. You just have to find the right cab going on that route. We also requested info from our host about getting a ride to Vinales the next day, and she hooked us up with a guy she knows.

Our shared cab to downtown - all rusted out on the inside.

The inner door panel of the car.

Across the street from the beautiful new Capitol building.

Typical doorway to an apartment building.

Old Havana. I think I'd stay down here next time.

One wifi spot in the city. I managed to keep my phone off all week and guess what? I didn't miss anything that happened. Though I did wonder - if some major world event had happened, at what point would I find out about it?

There are four main plazas around Old Havana. We hit all of them.

We waited and waited for a colectivo to go home, but finally gave in a paid ten bucks for a cab back.

Cuba's overall population is around 11 million, and 2.2 million live in Havana. It's quite a large city, so I'd recommend at least three or four days there if you're going. Too bad for us, we were moving on the next morning.

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