Saturday, April 2, 2016
Ahhh!!! The time has finally arrived! I feel like I’ve been planning this trip forever! When I first booked my trip Havana, it was for a few different reasons. One was because about a decade ago, I developed an interest in the complicated history of the country. Another was the U.S. told me I couldn’t. Last time I checked, I’s free. The last reason was cigars and rum. *shrugs* Now, I was walking into Cuba to understand if socialism works. I’m pretty sure I know the answer, but I need to see it with my own eyes, hear it with my own ears, taste it with my own tongue.
Getting to Cuba is becoming less and less strenuous for U.S. citizens, although it is still illegal for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba for the purpose of tourism. I had two options for getting to Havana: either fly out of a US city that offers direct charter flights to Havana (like Miami) or fly out of a third country.
I chose the later option by flying out of the New Orleans airport nonstop to Panama City, Panama. Then I flew from Panama City, Panama nonstop to Havana. (Note: I did review the US Treasury guidelines, and it is completely legal to book a flight out of a third country.) Easy enough? I did have to book both round trip tickets separately via Copa Airlines since the US doesn’t allow connecting flights to Cuba yet. Going through Panama was the best option for me based on where I reside, the dates I wanted to travel, the flight times, and the overall cost of the flights.
I arrived in Panama from New Orleans after an uneventful plane ride, Since I booked my flights separately, I had to go through immigration and customs, then check in again for my flight to Havana. I quickly exited customs and took the escalators upstairs to the check-in counter to get a boarding pass for Havana. The woman at the counter asked me if I needed a tourist card before I had a chance to inquire, and after a few moments of confusion on her part, she directed me to get it at the gate counter. Fine by me. I head ed through security and grabbed some lunch at Air Margaritaville since Panama’s airport didn’t seem to have any restaurants that were authentic to the region. No empanadas? No arepas? No ceviche? I guess this turkey club sandwich and guava juice would have to do.
After stuffing my face, I headed to my gate and asked for a tourist card. The gate agent simply asked for $20 USD, took the Jackson when I handed it to her, and handed me the card in return. Right after, they made an announcement about the availability of the card for purchase by anyone who needed it. The required document had two parts – one for when I arrived in Cuba and one for when I departed. I filled it out quickly since it only asked for my name, date of birth, passport number, and country of citizenship. Yet another step to check off the list, and another step closer to Havana!
I was getting anxiety. Everything had gone smoothly so far, but I still hadn’t arrived. I was just worried about getting around without a map on my phone since I was usually dependent on phone data and Google maps for a smooth trip. These things weren’t as readily available in Cuba as it was in other countries, so I wa regretting not taking more time to find offline maps or buying one from the app store.
On the plane I checked out the scenery as we got close to landing in Havana. There wasn’t much to see, but I noticed there were several empty roadways. One or two Chevy’s every now and then, but mostly empty. I smiled at the thought I have arrived at Cuba – the one country I wanted to visit for several years.
I was toward the front of the plane on the flight to Havana, so there was no wait at all for me when I arrived at immigration. The young woman’s only question was if I had been to Africa. I told her no, and she proceeded to take my photo, stamp my tourist card, and send me on my way. I just knew she was going to ask me about medical insurance or what my intentions were in the country. Nope, no further questions. I was so worried about getting interrogated, I didn’t realize she didn’t stamp my actual passport until I looked at it later while waiting at baggage claim. Getting that Cuba stamp meant a lot to me, but I didn’t get it!
Disappointedly walking out of baggage claim, I handed over my nothing to declare form and exited into the arrivals hall, I took the escalator upstairs to exchange some euros for CUCs and CUPs. I noticed the rates posted on a screen for transparency, and the counter worker was very thorough. She gave me a receipt and pointed out what I gave her, what she was giving me, and the rate in accordance with the screen. She then carefully counted the CUCs and CUPs for me to verify the correct amount.
At this point, I was finally ready. I headed out to get a taxi. Man, I don’t even want to talk about that bullshit. I called the driver a ladron and an asshole, and overpaid for sake of argument when we arrived at the Airbnb. The only good thing about that taxi ride was that I saw the illuminated depiction of Che Guevara at Plaza de la Revolución.
Lodging seemed to be a big issue in Cuba. Tour companies were blocking big chunks of dates for hotels. Hotels were overbooking guests and leaving them with no alternatives. It was necessary to book wayyy in advance, and then still have a “plan b” if using a hotel.
To get an “authentic” Cuban experience, I ditched the hotels and stayed in a casa particular in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. I made these arrangements via Airbnb and I was prompted by this message when I booked:
Since you’re headed to Cuba, we need to collect a few extra details before we can send your information to the host.
I had to check a box to certify that I was going for approved purposes under the 12 general licenses, then select which of the 12 requirements from a drop down menu. I checked off “support of the Cuban people” by accident because I didn’t realize that P2P fell under the educational category. I couldn’t go back and change it, or I didn’t know how if I could.
I met the hostess, whose name I never actually get. She was the mother of the host listed on Airbnb, so I just referred to her as Señora. She spoke zero English, so I knew it was going to be a lovely week with my limited Spanish. She gave me a grand tour of the home, which was just like the photos on the Airbnb listing. It actually may have been updated with a paint job. My room came with a full size bed, a connecting room with a twin bed and refrigerator, and a small bathroom with a hot shower. Most importantly, I had an air conditioner, and that thing blew super cold! I might have messed around and used all of this woman’s electricity. The ceilings were high. The mattress wasn’t very luxurious, but I read that there was a mattress shortage in Cuba. Go figure!
The Airbnb had cameras and it took 3 keys just to get inside the home and into my room. There was one to enter the front patio, one to enter the home, and another for the room. I didn’t know if anyone else had a key to my room, but I still felt somewhat safe knowing there were cameras, keys, and doors that locked automatically when closed.
Another noteworthy thing was that for legal casa particulars, I was required to provide a passport. Before she disappeared to her room, Señora recorded my passport info and had me sign that I was staying there. She asked if I would need breakfast in the morning (for a fee, of course), and I told her no, but I considered taking her up on the offer depending on how things went.
I showered, threw on some clothes, said hell no to makeup, and headed out to get some dinner. My plan was Decameron, which was a few blocks away, but I decided to save that for another day. Walking down Linea, the street where my Airbnb was located, I found a restaurant/cafeteria right next door to the casa. I would have to check it out when I was being too lazy to go somewhere for dinner this week. I walked toward Hotel Melia Cohiba and stumbled upon a restaurant directly across the street called HM51. It looked like a cool hangout spot, so I walked over and asked the guy sitting outside if they were open. They were, and I proceeded up the stairs to the second floor balcony facing Melia Cohiba. There was a good breeze blowing from the Malecon, and great people-watching. That was all I needed in this life of sin. I ordered a sangria, the first of several drinks in the city, along with shrimp in a garlic sauce. It costed me 17.45 CUC with a tip. Very good shrimp. Sangria? Just okay.
Young teens strolled hand-in-hand with their mates to the Malecon, old white-haired tourists hopped off tour buses and into the hotel in large groups, and middle aged folks headed to Habana Cafe. I was supposed to go as well after dinner, but I was still peeved about the ladron so off to bed I went instead.
Sunday, April 3, 2016
I tried to sleep in, but at some point in the morning, I heard a kid outside my window already awake and enjoying the day. He was yelling in a rhythm as if a song.
Hey! *Pause* Hey! Hey! *Pause* Repeat 1,000 times.
He must have been next door. Linea was a busy street, so I heard cars and buses speeding by and people walking by as I slept. Light sleepers and those unadjusted to city life would hate it, but I slept nonetheless. I rolled out of bed at 8:30 and prepared for the day. I wasn’t too sure of my agenda, for it all depended on whether Matanzas was still in the baseball playoffs. I dressed, and started my walk to Melia Cohiba to access wifi. On the way, I saw a bunch of local Cubans walking in and out of a panaderia. You know when in Rome…
I walked into this place called Dulcinea, and saw lots of baked goods at a good price. I forgot my water at the Airbnb, so I bought a bottle of water and a ham and cheese croissant for 2.60 CUC. The croissant was nice and warm, so I decided to stick with this as my official breakfast spot.
I continued to Melia Cohiba. At the hotel business center, I paid 10 CUC for an hour of wifi access, and the sign said that it was 5 CUC per hour for hotel guests. The hotel employee gave me an envelope with a paper inside that had the username and password details. I sat in the lobby and used it for 15 minutes before logging out. It looked like Matanzas was still in the playoffs. A game was today, but there was conflicting information regarding the start time. I decided not to chance it, and I just stayed in Havana. Maybe I’d be able to catch a finals game before I left.
While using wifi, I also screenshotted some Google results about the taxi situation on Havana to make sure I didn’t have a repeat situation with the ladron. It wasn’t very helpful, so I decided to walk from Melia Cohiba to Callejon de Hamel in Centro Habana. Callejon de Hamel is an outdoor art space that highlights afro-cuban culture, and it has a weekly Sunday gathering for rumba performances.
I wandered along, and it was 12:15 when I ran into Luis, who saw a dark brown girl with a backpack and a camera, and knew right away I wasn’t Cuban. He said his job was some sort of cultural representative (eye roll), and showed me his ID. He mentioned there was a rumba festival today. I told him that was where I was headed, and he volunteered to show me the way. Honestly, I didn’t really know how to get there, so I let him lead the way. We were very close to the event at a good five blocks away. Along the way, Luis told me he had family in New Jersey. He asked if I was in a hotel or a casa particular. When I said casa particular, he agreed that it was the best way to go. More questions, of course.
“How long are you in Havana?”
“How much is the casa?”
“In what neighborhood?”
“What is your city’s population?”
We arrived and the place was crowded with tourists and locals alike. A man was soliciting CDs to support the art school for kids at the location (and himself). Luis, who I already know wants something from me, was showing me around and at some point, we reached the bar. He asked if I want a drink, AKA do you want to buy you AND me a drink? Honestly, I was dehydrated with only one bottle of water in my system and sweating like crazy so I declined. We then walked out of Callejon de Hamel, and he asked what kind of souvenirs I was looking to bring back to my family and friends. Of course he knew a place and offered to take me. I said no – not today. I hadn’t planned on buying in souvenirs until my last day because I didn’t know how much money I’d have available, and I couldn’t access more currency if I needed it. At this point, I was worthless to Luis, so he asked me what’s next. We were only in Callejon de Hamel for five minutes, so I told him I was going back inside to enjoy the music. He told me goodbye, and I was sure I’d never see him again. All I had was large bills in my backpack, but I would have and should have tipped him for showing me the way. I watched the performers until about 2:00. A band of female members were getting it. I thoroughly enjoyed.
I left to get lunch and WATER, and met Manuel on the way out. He noticed me snapping photos of the art, and started a discussion. His eyes lit up he discovered I was from America.
“I have a brother in Milwaukee!” he exclaimed proudly. I smiled and told him I had never been there before. We chatted for a while, and I finally got away to find water. On the way, I met yet another passerby. This time it was a heavy set dark skinned gentlemen walking with two male tourists. He saw me, smiled brightly, walked toward me, grabbed my hand, and kissed it.
“We’re going to Callejon de Hamel. Why don’t you join us?” he requested. I told him I just left, and politely excused myself as I continued my search for hydration. I sweated so much while at Callejon de Hamel, and now I was in desperate need of water. As I walked the streets of Centro Habana, all I saw is soda, but I found a guy selling room temperature 1.5-liter bottles for 30 CUP – a little over $1 USD. Nearby, I entered Paladar La Guarida on the third floor of a former mansion. The hostess asked me if I had a reservation. Ummm, do people really make reservations for one nowadays? I told her no, and she smiled politely, and ushered me over to one of many empty tables. It seemed as though this place got crowded at night when the overall ambiance was best. I had a daiquiri, bread, lobster with rice, and cafe con leche for 25 CUC with the tip. The only thing I didn’t actually enjoy was the lobster. The daiquiri was weak, but frozen thick so I sipped it like a slush and almost got a brain freeze.
I finished my lunch, and walked down to the second floor of the mansion to catch the views outside. Centro Habana was buzzing with locals just living their lives. After hanging around for a bit, I continued my stroll down the Malecon. In some areas, the waves were pushing water over the Malecon and into the streets. I found a place where was safe to sit, and enjoyed the breeze along with the sound of the water.
I sat enjoying the water and was getting damn-near hypnotized by the waves when I met another Luis. This Luis was a student a the University of Havana and was studying computers. Homie laid it on way. Too. Thick. He kissed my hand, selected one of my braids, kissed it, and tried multiple times to kiss me. I gave him the elbow several times to block his attempts. We chatted for a moment before he asked me to take a picture of his Che tattoo.
Then he got to the point. I was learning that there was always a point, but it took a while to get there. He wanted me to go with him to Buena Vista Social Club AKA me pay for everything. Nah, bruh. I was no silly American girl. I knew game – even in another country. He finally left, but returned later and said “C’mon, let’s go!” Sir, I wasn’t going any damn where with you. He asked why in a whining tone with a smile.Boy, bye!
He left again and about 15 minutes later, I decided to keep walking back to my Airbnb. The entire journey home, I was constantly stopped and asked about where I was from, and where I was staying. There was a lot of street harassment, but also I lot of general wonder about the girl who didn’t appear to be local. I got to my casa so exhausted, so I take a nap in the coolness of the air conditioner. I woke up and hung out in the front patio for an hour, then prepared for the evening.
As I was walking to Callejon de Hamel earlier today, I noticed that some parts of the Malecon were blocked off to traffic, and they were setting up a stage in the street. I figured something was happening later in the evening, and I was going to witness it. I passed by the US Embassy along the way, and the security guard struck up a conversation with me. I met him earlier when he saw me snapping photos of the American flag flying high. He asked why I came here alone, and the location of my boyfriend. I told me he was at home, but he paid for the trip, and he laughed and proceeded to ask for my number.
He wants to take me to El Gato Tuerto for a drink when he gets off. “I’m a good man,” he pleads in Spanglish when I denied him my number. “I have a job here working security for the US Embassy!” I smiled, waved goodbye, and proceeded to the concert.
My assumptions were correct. There was a huge crowd of people enjoying a band that I was not familiar with. They were obviously very popular to the people of Cuba, but off my radar. The genre was salsa or something similar, so everyone was dancing. In addition to the concert, there were food vendors selling sweets and liquor. Havana was my type of place, man!
I left around midnight to find food. I knew I ate a shit ton of food at La Guarida, but that was back at lunch, and I was hungry again. Along the way, I met a pair of half-drunk fellows headed to the concert. They stopped me and tried to chat, but the language barrier struck again. Neither knew any English, but I understood most of what they were saying in Spanish. Intrigued by the American girl, they told me that there was a concert in the opposite direction. I just left there, I told them. They wanted me to go back with them and buy them drinks. Nevermind the fact they already had drinks in their hands. One kissed my hand, the other pulled out his phone and started recording a video as if I was about to perform. I blocked his shot with my hand to signal that I didn’t want to be filmed, but he didn’t get it. It was hard to politely break away from their drunken enthusiasm, so I just started walking away.
And walking and walking. I had a screenshot of a restaurant nearby, but I couldn’t find it. It was not at the location it was supposed to be, and I looked for it on a few other blocks nearby to no avail. After strolling the unlit streets of Centro Habana for way too long, I decided to give up and head home. At this point, my feet were feeling the results of so much walking on my first full day in Havana. I flagged down the first taxi I see, and paid 5 CUC to get from Centro Habana to Vedado.