Oh, Cuba. Even preparing for Cuba, I was at a loss. What to pack? I’d read many personal accounts and had friends who’d been there, but Cuba seemed to change daily. What was one person’s experience, was not at all how another experienced the trip.
There were some things I wish I had known beforehand, such as the rapidly changing circumstances.
We took the first flight out of Jacksonville, FL to Miami, and then what appeared to be the earliest flight from Miami to Havana. We bought our visas at the gate, amidst a crowd of people from many different countries. Still, this step, which some airlines seemed happy to shepherd its customers through over the phone, had been a particularly sore point for me.
I’d made several rounds of phone calls, been bounced back and forth from an unresponsive “travel agency” (cheapair.com), to unresponsive airline representatives (American Airlines), before getting a hold on someone who knew anything about Cuba. Our friends who had bought tickets on Delta and JetBlue respectively still had troubles, but not as many as I seemed to have. They had bought their visas over the phone in advance, while we were obligated to wait until the day of to buy from a kiosk next to the gate. Despite the added anxiety, the process was very easy.
The plane was new and crowded. We landed in Havana without incident, and going through customs was easy and fast. The longest part of our wait was waiting for our checked baggage to appear on the carousel. Walking out of the international terminal, our first task was to figure out how to exchange money.
Money is a weird thing in Cuba. American dollars are decidedly NOT welcome, and are traded at a taxed fee, regardless of its global strength. Euros are preferred for trading, and we had brought a few of those along. Euro to the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is a one-to-one exchange, period. CUCs are for tourist use, not for Cuban citizens. A Cuban citizen uses CUPs, or non-convertible pesos, which has a completely different scale, and is a much less expensive economy.
CUC prices are expensive, like dinners being 9 CUCs per entree or more. But if you were a person in the know, and went to other places using CUPs, prices are much, much less. Like cents on the peso. But, if you don’t speak fluent (Cuban) Spanish, they are hesitant to take a CUP from a foreigner.
Wandering in the terminal, looking for a money exchange, we found a very helpful lady who hailed us a taxi. She negotiated with the driver to take Euros, giving us an opportunity to exchange our money in town, as the airport exchange was crowded. As we later learned, it didn’t matter where you went, the lines to exchange money were long.
The drive in was about 30 minutes, from airport to the old town (Viejo Habana). Diesel fumes are ubiquitous, as is the socialist propaganda. Billboards did not disappoint.
When we got to the narrow streets of Old Town, the police wouldn’t allow our taxi driver to continue. We were in the muddy streets of Havana, pulling our suitcase, trying to find a way around the blockading police. In a crowd, we managed to sneak past a pair of policia and get to our AirBnb, Casa Amistad.
The day was just beginning, not quite ten a.m., and our host, Ronaldo, was feeling ill, unable to help that day. Instead, Heyli greeted us. She offered to walk us down to a money changer, but she had a few things to take care of first. Andy and I spent time peering over the third-floor balcony watching what was happening below–a film shoot.
They were just setting up, but those boxes and cords are unmistakeable. Word was that it was an Enrique Iglesias video. Pretty teen girls walked around with perfect hair and pristine white costumes, so a music video sounded about right. Still, we headed out with Heyli to change our money instead of sticking around.
We tried a few different exchanges, one had decided to no longer change dollars, and another had a long line (but it was next to a churro cart!), so Heyli took us out of Old Town to another money exchange. She gave us good directions on how to go about our day, leaving us reluctantly, as if we were small children of dubious responsibility. We stood in line for about forty-five minutes, which seemed to be about what everyone did.
After the money adventure, we took a pedi-cab to an excellent restaurant (best mint-lemonade), Cha Cha Cha, across from the Museo de la Revolucion. We peered over at “Granma,” a yacht enclosed in glass, which Fidel, Raul, Che, and about 80 other guys rode from Mexico to the southern tip of Cuba for the 1959 Revolution.
We investigated after our meal, heading into the museum, the former Presidential Palace. When entering the grandiose building, the bust of Lenin greets you. It is easy to miss the bullet holes next to his head where the revolutionaries stormed the building. The upstairs was in good repair, beautiful murals stretched across ceilings, and the ornate wrought iron lamps were in place. Certain rooms were set up as they had been when Batista was in power. The staircase where he fled the revolutionaries was glassed off so museum-goers could gawk at it.
The museum itself traced the 1959 coup almost hour-by-hour, where and how each leader (Fidel, Raul, Che) led his troops. The revolutionaries were small in number, but they took over Havana because much of the military surrendered. The exhibits showed this, including photographs of the bodies of those who did NOT surrender. Fidel’s bloody clothes from that night are on display.
Connected to the Museum of the Revolution nee the Presidential Palace, is the outdoor section, featuring the glass-enclosed yacht. Other displays were tractors hand-altered to be tanks made by supporters outside of Havana for the Revolutionaries.
The Museum made clear the involvement of the U.S. government, both in propping up Batista’s regime and in the interference afterwards. The clearest point, however, was that the martyrdom of Che Guevara at the hands of CIA operatives will never be forgiven.
After the museum, we tried to head back to the Casa for a nap, but were once again thwarted by Enrique Iglesias. The policia wouldn’t let us in on our block due to filming. So off we went to explore more of Havana.
We visited the Plaza of San Francisco de Asis, and then found an outdoor bar for a lemonade and a cuba libre. The air was warm and sticky, not unlike Savannah in May. The table next to us were Canadians, staying at a resort outside of Havana that is off-limits to Americans (this is due to American restrictions).
After spending a few hours out and about, we returned to run the policia gauntlet and this time MADE it. We headed upstairs to our floor, checked in properly, made our acquaintance with Ronaldo, and finally got a chance for a nap. The room was spacious with two beds, a private bathroom, a table to write at, and air conditioning. I laid down, grateful for the rest. Of course, when the screaming started, I had to investigate.
The view from the balcony was the best vantage point. A short but very fit man wearing a thin, white t-shirt and black baseball cap emerged from a dark bus parked in front of our Casa. A horde of teenaged girls screamed at him as he took pictures with each young girl thrust by his side. He held babies, waved, posed for pictures, and eventually disappeared into the green cement house that had been commandeered as hair/make-up that day. It had to be Enrique, my Nap Nemesis.
We left awhile later, napless, to meet up with Liz, Kyle, Kate, and Tobias in the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis. On the way, we passed my Nap Nemesis performing on top of the red bus (it had also been parked on our street all day). An enthusiastic audience jumped and stretched their hands up to him. Enrique.
We met up with our people, exploring until we found some dinner. After the first of many toasts, we ate ropa vieja (literally “old clothes,” the dish is essentially pulled pork, a staple of Cuban cuisine), and headed to bed early in the humid evening.
Live music leaked out of every restaurant, the drumbeat insistent, but we shrugged it off for another day.