I met Havana at 3am. Tired and bleary-eyed from waiting for a plane that was eventually delayed for 8 hours, we waited through the long line at immigration, passed through yet another security scanner and waited an absurdly long time at baggage claim. Finally we emerged from the airport and into a taxi, and drove down the nearly empty streets with the windows open, passing people drinking rum on their porches and staring with fascination at the old cars that passed us.
(Side note on the baggage claim – I’ve never seen baggage like this. People were bringing televisions, blenders, coffee makers, and huge bags of clothing. It must have cost them a fortune in excess baggage fees, but I guess that’s the only way to get some of this stuff.)
With the help of our taxi driver, we landed smoothly at a casa particular, the Cuban equivalent of a bed and breakfast in which you stay with a family in their home, and quickly passed out.
The next day, I was swept up in the appeal of a new city, particularly one with such unique properties. We spent hours wandering the streets, enjoying the 1950s cars, crumbing colonial architecture, and Cuban jazz music.
Empowered by a few mojitos, I even chatted with a 23 year old Cuban student for nearly an hour so that he could practice his English and I could learn a little more about Cuba. He told me about how Cuban citizens are almost never allowed to leave the country to travel, how virtually no one speaks English, and how no one has access to the Internet except the government (and possibly tourists at one hotel in the city.) It was quite fascinating.
We passed a lovely day, and returned to our home feeling happy.
But after 24-36 hours in Cuba, some of the magic had faded. The crumbling architecture that had previously seemed charming began to feel impoverished and run down. The old cars that seemed cool yesterday felt more like environmental hazards. After riding in the back seat of one it became largely clear that these were not cars that were fixed up lovingly, but cars that were held together with bamboo siding on the doors, rusted interiors, and dilapidated door handles. The amount of exhaust coming out of them filled the streets, no doubt polluting the air.
They often stopped working all together. In the morning I happened to snap a photo of this red car near the capitol.
And here is that same car later that afternoon, being pushed down the Malecon after it stopped working.
Over the next few days we found ourselves disheartened by how extremely we were being gringo taxed. Every cab driver charged us 4-7 pesos when the fee should have been 1 peso. (1 peso is equivalent to US$1.) Vendors consistently gave John the wrong change, acting like it was pure accident whenever he called them on it. Food cost far more in our tourist currency than it would have in the native currency. Everything cost more, and suddenly it was becoming very expensive. To change US dollars it was an extra 10% fee on top of the conversion rate, and nearly nowhere would change our Mexican Pesos.
A little gringo tax here and there doesn’t bother me too much – usually it happens in countries that are so poor they really need the money more than you do. And it’s usually a pretty small amount. In Cuba it was a little more substantial. (On one meal they added $8 to a $12 tab for no good reason. We didn’t even realize it until the local we were dining with told us after the fact that the waitress had pocketed the extra cash.)
And since we couldn’t get any more money (US ATM cards and credit cards don’t work in Cuba, so what you bring is what you have), it made us a little nervous everytime things cost more than they should.
But I guess that’s just one of the realities of traveling to a communist country that hasn’t been touched by US influence in 50 years. Yes, it’s a bit inconvenient to travel (we were there illegally, after all, it was kind of our fault.) But there are a lot of really interesting side effects to being in a country with little to no US influence.
For example, this may be the only place in the world I’ve ever been and not seen a McDonald’s, KFC, or Starbucks. Even in the middle of the rural Philippines we saw a Starbucks. It’s striking to wander in such a large city and see none of these.
There’s also no advertising anywhere. No billboards, no murals, no fliers taped to walls, nothing. It’s really fascinating to realize how inundated our culture usually is with ads, and how peaceful it seems without them.
There’s no Coca Cola or other US based products, either, which is so wonderfully odd. Now, please don’t get me wrong, John and I never frequent McDonalds, we don’t drink Coke, and we have no interest in seeing US ads papered all over the place. But when you’ve traveled enough, you just take these things as a given everywhere you go. It’s truly novel to be somewhere so urban without them.
What they do have in Cuba, though, is amazing rum. We had several delicious drinks. Below is The Hotel National, where you can get amazing Pina Coladas. Seriously fantastic.
Instead of ads, you can see the occasional socialism/revolution mural.
And the city is full of Fidel and Che propaganda. Nearly every bookstore is full of books extolling their virtues (and practically nothing else), Tshirts and postcards with their faces are sold in every tourist shop, and huge murals and monuments are dedicated to them.
When John saw a Fidel look alike wandering around the park, he immediately thought it was Castro. After his mind had 20 seconds to realize it was just an impersonator, he insisted I take a photo of him with the guy and give him a peso because his reaction had been so strong. Notice he’s wearing a Che Tshirt. This stuff is everywhere.
After days of struggling to understand Spanish in a Cuban accent (very difficult), we decided the solution to all of our problems could be found at the bottom of a mojito glass.
Add some Cuban jazz music, and you’ve got yourself a night.
While we didn’t fall in love with Cuba, and in fact at one point we were counting the hours until we could pass back to Mexico, we definitely learned some interesting things. There is probably no where else in the world quite like it.
After our five days were up, we left Havana to return to Cancun once more. We celebrated not having run out of cash, lost our passports, or gotten stuck at immigration during our stay (again, traveling illegally comes with a few concerns), bought a bottle of Havana Club rum at the Duty Free shop, and hightailed it out of there.