We were in a windowless seat, so we had no view of Cuba as the plane descended. Our first impression was when we deplaned. The terminal looked worn, which we soon learned was the ubiquitous state of all buildings in this island nation. And worn is being polite.
The second impression was expected but still romantic: all the 1950’s automobiles, though they too looked worn, as they should be. The third impression was olfactory. Those old cars spew noxious fumes. It was a smell I remembered from childhood, though I don’t think it was ever this bad, even 60 years ago. The smell would be with us all five days we were here. It was a smell you could see emanating from the tailpipes. Our taxi driver from the airport quickly closed my window. Perhaps he was just showing off the air conditioning the old Chevy had. An aftermarket system, to be sure, it occupied most of the leg room in the front seat.
The price of the ride to old Havana where we were staying was $30 per car. We needed two cabs. Karla and I were joined by Sarah, whose husband Paul was taking a more daring route to Cuba from Tampa Bay, along with his brother Mark. Mark’s wife Paula and their middle child Charlotte were sharing the cab.
It’s impossible to ignore the state of the capital. Buildings were far passed their glory years. Many were inhabitable. Others merely looked so. But behind the cracked plaster and faded paint, people had shelter and often an interior that belied the exterior. Flat screen televisions sometimes were mounted on the walls and the furniture and everything looked much better than the outside.
We rolled up to Casa Una and upon exiting the taxi confronted another smell: raw sewage. It was concentrated in front of our house and didn’t stray far from the street. But it was unmistakably there and would remain so for the entire trip.
We climbed a marble staircase to the second floor of the house. With 20-foot ceilings throughout and well-kept dark wicker furniture, it looked far better than the exterior of most of our neighbors’ homes. There were tile floors throughout with similar but not always matching tiles. The beds were clean and sharply made, so much so that each night crawling into bed was like peeling saran wrap off a watermelon. My feet would fit only sideways at first until I worked the covers for a little room.
The bathrooms, always a crap shoot in foreign countries (no pun intended), looked promising. When Karla turned on the faucet the water hesitated a few seconds as if reluctant to come out. But she said it eventually worked fine, only to discover later that the water she had was what was left in the pipes. We soon learned that water was not a given. We called the host of our Airbnb, Navi, and he apologized and ensured us that we’d have water within an hour or two. Was he hoping for rain?
Navi is a dapper man, always wearing a straw hat, deck shoes with no socks and a sport coat, even if he also wears shorts. He welcomed us heartily and suggested we take a trip outside the city the next day, Thursday, to visit Vinales where we would tour a tobacco factory. He was proud of Casa Una and made sure we noticed the wall of photographs, most of which included young man with a narrow chin and doleful eyes, sometimes with a camera in his hand. Many of them were with Fidel Castro. Navi’s uncle apparently was something of a documentarian of the revolution. Other photos of him were more recent. He is still alive. I would have loved to meet him.
The 6:30 am flight from the Tampa Bay was less than an hour. So despite the immigration check, which was no worse and maybe faster than that I’ve experienced in the U.S, we had a full day ahead of us, though the foreign exchange procedure tried to use most of it. There was one woman exchanging currency and another woman in a separate booth who seemed to count each pile of money she was in charge of six times. Then she would walk out of the booth and return to count it again. Finally she opened her window and then a third woman showed up. We finally got our CUC’s (which differ from CUP’s that are never to be accepted by unsuspecting tourists). We were on our way.
The five of us had previously planned a walking tour of “old Havana.” It would be another day at least before Paul, Paula’s husband Mark and the rest of the crew would arrive. They and three others were sailing a boat from St. Pete to Havana, a revival of a race that began in the 1930’s until it was interrupted by the socialist revolution in 1959. With the thaw in relations with Cuba initiated by former President Obama, the race was being revived.
That gave me and my harem of four (as a couple of Havana’s macho Senors would point out) time to wander…and wonder. Are the people here feeling deprived? The physical façade is beyond worn. Many of the streets are beyond pockmarked. Holes in the streets and sidewalks are enough to leave you with a ankle to hip cast. The sidewalks, such as they are in the old part of the city, cannot be navigated without a keen eye. Nowhere are they smooth for more than a few feet. They undulate and sport trip hazards at every step. And unlike in the U.S., there is no attempt to warn walkers. Even on dark streets, you traverse at your own risk.
Most folks walk in the side streets, and despite the obstacles and challenges, seem to have inner sonars that keep things moving. Cars, single cyclists and bike-taxis seem to have the right of way. Your warning may be a lightly touched horn, a bell or a whistle that’s easy to miss. Some of the mopeds must be electric because they are silent. Their drivers depend on the whistle. But it is remarkable that during our stay we never saw an accident, even a close call. This, despite an apparent shortage of Pare, or stop signs, at most intersections. Pedestrians walk like cyclists ride in a pack, never making a sudden sideways move. Which is fortunate as motorists don’t slow down much. And their passing tolerance is minimal. Swerve even a few inches and you’re either on the hood of the car or in the lap of a taxi pedaler.
Dogs and cats share the walkways. None have collars, so I assume they are strays. They use the streets as you would expect, which adds another obstacle to avoid. They are savvy creatures and don’t necessarily look undernourished. Even the hairless dog in our neighborhood looked plump. It’s not surprising.
The first day I was struck by how dirty the streets seem to be. Mostly, it was building debris but with a fair amount of trash and garbage, which probably account for the nourished animals. Some of the holes would slow cars to less than 1 mph, hoping to avoid bottoming out.
But by Saturday morning, either I had become accustomed to it, or someone was at work overnight sweeping. Many were the residents, who used primitive brooms and dust pans and then a wet mop to make the small space in front of their house presentable. The potholes were still there and the occasional overloaded garbage dumpster, but even the overage was neatly piled next to dumpster awaiting the truck that would somehow wend its way through the narrow streets. Of course, there was no way to position the truck to pick up the dumpster. One of the sanitation crew had to maneuver the wheeled container to a position where it could be picked up.
When it came time for our Old Havana tour, the guide was a woman who looked much younger than her 42 years. She was knowledgeable and pleasant. However, even when a foreigner speaks English well, the pronunciations always strain my ears. But between the missed phrases I heard a story of a proud city whose faded physical appearance could not dim the role it played in the New World, beginning with Christopher Columbus.
Our tour ended with lunch, by which time we were all ready to eat the tour guide. The tour cost included lunch and, of course, a drink, which I came to understand is necessary to do anything in Cuba. While the Mojito seems to be the national beverage, I gravitated to other sweet drinks—daiquiris, pina coladas and marguerites. The meal was good, as I adopted the strategy of ordering whatever the tour guide ordered.
Afterwards, it was time for a nap as we awaited word of the sailors. Charlotte had a phone app that allowed us to know where they were—or more precisely where the boat was—and their position in the race. At first, they seemed to be doing well, but their position slipped and it became clear that they would not arrive Thursday night as was scheduled. Winds were almost non-existent and their strategy of taking a wide turn in hopes of grabbing the Gulf Stream wasn’t working.
Which was just as well as Casa Una had no water. Another call to the host and our night time “security guard” also became a plumber. He a climb on the roof to fix the problem.
The next day we took the suggestion of our host to go to Vinales, a two-hour trip where we would see beautiful scenery and a cigar factory. There were some nice vistas as we drove, but it was a three-hour drive and the factory was a hut where they dried the tobacco. The tour was brief but informative, with a guy making it sound as if a cigar is required to get into the mood for love. We also saw how they roll cigars. But three hours was a bit much and probably more expensive than we should have paid–$200 round trip with five of us riding in a 1955 Chevy and a $30/person lunch where we were expected to pay for the driver’s lunch, too. I’d recommend passing this up unless you could spend a day or two there as there appeared to be some nice hikes available.
Dinner was less than mediocre at a place called La Familia, if my Spanish is correct.
The next tour was the best—the Ernest Hemingway tour of his house, the fishing village where he was inspired to write The Old Man and the Sea, and a few of his bar hang-outs. The guide, Reynaldo, was great. Hemingway’s house is supposedly just as he left it when he blew his brains out in an Idaho cabin. His father, brother and sister also took their own lives.
Our sailors made it there at the beginning of our third day. They were disappointed that they apparently finished 9th in their class. But they discovered that seven of the boats that came in before them were all disqualified for using their engines. They grew tired of sitting with no wind. So not only did our guys finish second, but they learned that the only boat that beat them used the same strategy of turning wide to catch the Gulf Stream.
Our last tour was a “Classic Car” tour, which I took to be a tour or exhibition of some of the many old cars you see on the Havana streets. But it was a tour in a classic car to a couple of highlights within the city, most notably Revolution Square, where Castro made his victory speech after taking control of the country in 1959. Riding in convertibles exacerbated the pollution problem. You literally inhale black smoke that lingers there. Many of these old cars are pretty loud, too, especially if they’ve been retrofitted with diesel engines.
Our Airbnb host suggested we eat dinner at La Guarida, which he described as the best and most expensive restaurant in all of Cuba. It was neither 5-star or expensive, with many entrees in the $8-15 range. It was in a most unusual setting. Walking up the steps you feel you’re entering a secret room where you’ll meet a Communist spy. The building, like so many others, looks almost inhabitable from the outside. But near the top, you enter the restaurant, which is well appointed. We were told that many of its workers also live in the building.
Restaurants and other businesses that serve tourists are among those that the government has allowed to be private enterprise. To what degree, however, is unclear. What is clear, though, is that many people there want to serve tourists as they can make a lot of money through tips, much more so than they get with their salaries. In 2011, the government also began letting people buy and sell their houses.
As I see it, there are a few tips for visiting Cuba:
- Learn Spanish. Few people speak English. Not knowing left me unable to enjoy the people as much as I thought I would.
- Exchange American dollars before you go. Get euros or Canadian dollars and then convert them to the CUP’s once you get to Cuba. That way you’ll avoid the 10% surcharge the government places on American currency.
- Seek out things on your own. Or at least be wary of tours and outings arranged by others there. Some of the government tours, however, were a bargain. So was the Airbnb place, though it did have its issues.
- Buy cigars either at the “factory” or arrange for someone there to buy them for you. Our group bought several boxes of cigars that were $60 each. In the stores, they can be three to five times that.
- Recognize that in many areas Cuba is still a third world country. Roads are poor and we were told that renting a car is a hassle and exposes you to “maintenance” charges, and no amount of American insurance will cover you.
- You’ll need a visa and Cuban health insurance before you go.
- We saw little evidence of crime and always felt safe. However, we were told that pick pocketing is a problem. But not violet crime. There was little police presence there, which surprised me.
- Old Havana is definitely a good place to book a room. It may not be the cleanest neighborhood, but it’s near most of what you’ll want to see in a 3-5-day visit. The big hotels seemed expensive. Book an Airbnb if you can.
- Restaurant service can be slow. We waited 30 minutes to place an order and another 45 minutes get our meals a lunch on our last day. And there are no “no smoking” sections.
- Be prepared to drink. Most mixed drinks cost $3-4.
Would I go again? Probably not unless it was a weekend trip and I learned Spanish.