Charlotte, NC to Havana, Cuba
During the past two weeks I've traveled over 9,133 miles from home and I've connected with Kittitians, Nevisians, Canadians, Africans, Britains and Cubans. We represent(ed) different economical, global, political and social perspectives however in conversing we all share the same values and dreams for life. A rich life for ourselves, for our children, for our countries and for future generations.
The disconnect for us (mostly) begins on how to achieve this idea of utopia we carry for our lives.
Of making its own people comfortable Cuba appears to have failed. Without labeling the country as communist or as socialist; all means of production are state-owned with an attempt to build a system of more economic freedom all while attaining total control of politics through repression and censorship. By observation and discussion, the only positive are state provided basic needs like health care and education.
I've previously written about preparing for travel to Cuba on Retirement Savvy so it was easy managing my expectations as I planned a last minute trip after returning from celebrating our wedding anniversary in St Kitts and Nevis. Mrs. Tramuel did not want to go so I rolled solo. Travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited by statute however, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has issued general licenses for 12 categories of travel. I traveled under Educational Activities, "people-to-people" and you should too 'cause most of us won't fit into the others. American Airlines flies direct from Charlotte, I purchased a ticket on their website (the cost included mandatory Cuban medical insurance which is required to enter Cuba), naturally you will need a valid passport and a Cuban visitor’s visa which I had to obtain on the day of travel, paying $100 USD. In advance the cost is $85 via Cuba Travel Services. However, if you carry the one and add the two it may cost the same - after adding shipping and handling to have the visa mailed to you.
I secured housing via Airbnb, searching for a unit I would have all to myself 'cause I like to be naked sometimes, well most times. My choice was driven by price, reviews, pictures and location. Airbnb does not show you the exact location until you book, however the map view (round area, no pin drop) showed it to be a central location. I never considered a hotel, and chose to be / live among the people. My unit was located in Plaza de La Revolucion, one of the 15 municipalities (neighborhoods) forming the city, stretching from the square down to the sea at the Malecón including the Vedado district.
Located in a family building, my unit was on the fifth floor and it was is not for the faint of heart or someone with a lot of luggage 'cause sin ascensor (no elevator) & I swear it was x2 for floors. However, It did provide amazing views of the city. (Ignore my flip-flops in this video)
The unit has a living room with television but don't expect to catch Scandal 'cause Government, two bedrooms, a full kitchen, separate dining room with a refrigerator that was stocked with bottled water and soda (for a fee - think mini bar), and one bathroom. No negatives from me about the unit, I will caution you that you cannot flush the paper used to wipe yourself, there was a bin next to the toilet for tissue disposal. I was aware before traveling and bought a handful of Maestro's doggy bags. Also, there was a hose (think low budget bidet - I guess) next to the toilet for doing low budget bidet shit (see what I did there?) Garbage in Cuba is an environmental disaster, a serious one and their waste management system is dangerously broken. On that note, I'm not saying don't drink the tap water, but I didn't ... I bought enough bottled water & lemon soda from a gas station that didn't sell gas to last me for the duration of my stay.
Cuba enjoys a tropical climate, with year-round temperate weather. The temperature was hot and humid during the day and cool at night. My apartment had a/c units in each of the bedrooms, I turned them off at night and enjoyed the cool breeze from the open air windows. The official hurricane season runs from June through November, with more rain occurring during these months due to tropical storm activity. I was very impressed with a highly developed disaster preparedness and civil defense network for evacuations.
I walked, I walked a lot on average about 28k steps each day. That was by choice, a sane person would travel by bus, legal or illegal taxis, horse drawn carriages, bicitaxi, or those little yellow cocotaxi, they are all waiting for you to drive you around.
Gua Gua, slang for public transportation by bus in Havana - this was a no-go for me, from Sun up till' Sun down every last route, every last bus had people packed in like Sardines, Hey! & pork and beans.
Local taxi colectivos, the Almendrones (slang for old car) like Chevrolets from the '50, they are recognizable by their taxi signs at the front window. They ride a one way route, people stand along that route and hop in and out.
The cheapest way to get around is the bicitaxi at about 1 CUC, I did not realize they are not officially allowed to carry tourist but they do. Don't get caught, the penalty is death. I'm joking, if police are near they'll make you hop out and say something mean to you in Spanish but I only know Hola and Buenos días so miss me with that. I'd just hop on again around the corner like a boss.
I rode in a taxi three times, back and forth to the airport and once as it became later in the evening and I was at least 5 miles from the apartment I did not have the energy, or sense of direction to make it back. I don't know what category my driver fell in as he was in a small blue car with no meter, no taxi sign and no air conditioning. (1st world problems) Not fitting any of the descriptions above, I worked it out for 3 CUC. Deal.
Traveling solo, everyone was concerned about my safety. I don't believe I ever was concerned - Cuban women are 2nd behind black women in beauty, I'm using to me language so mute your dissent.
You: "But Brian, what does this have to do with safety?"
Me: "I'm a lover, not a fighter but I'm also a fighter so don't get any ideas."
In general, Cuba is a peaceful country with very strict control over guns. I'm sure there are petty crimes that happen and opportunist looking to fool tourist with their foolery. I kept my passport and other valuables locked in the room. To that point, there was a locked gate at the foot of the apartment, a five floor deterrent, another padlocked gate to the actual unit and a front door with a double deadbolt - when I say I was locked in, I was locked in.
I was given a cellphone to use during my visit, preprogramed with the team and emergency contact numbers. I thought this was a nice touch. I exchanged a text message with Laura who was looking for some sweet, late night chit chat, other than that I did not need to use it.
Cuba has a dual currency, dual price system; Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) and Cuban Pesos (CUP) - The conversion among them is 1CUC = 25CUP, you should expect to make all of your purchases using CUC as CUP is primarily used for staple goods and services for employees of the Cuban Government and of state enterprises. Note that locals refer to them both as Pesos, be aware.
I exchanged my USD upon arrival at José Martí International Airport at a CADECA currency exchange desk. USD is 1:1 with CUC, when exchanging there is a 10% tax (not applied to other currencies), I considered exchanging USD to CAD and then exchanging CAD to CUC.
Add the one, carry the two. Look at me I'm so good at math.
You down with CUC? Yeah, you know me and you should be too as you will not be able to use your credit or debit cards. Unless you have a MasterCard from Fort Lauderdale-based Stonegate Bank you will need to have on hand all the cash needed for your trip. I budgeted $100-$150 per day, but women be shopping and if you are a woman stack your paper accordingly. I was advised to be careful of people giving change in CUP (which is fine) just ensure you are receiving the correct amount of change. I had no issue with this and don't believe others will as it is very easy to tell the difference between the two.
The prices are separated into two groups fixed and negotiable (local and tourist). Restaurants, bars, museums and state owned stores are all fixed. The taxis, souvenir sellers and artisans are all negotiable rates. Also, I did not find a standard practice for tipping, however 10% was greatly appreciated at restaurants, cafes and bars.
I incorrectly stated on an IG Story that CUC was designed to replace CUP, I was wrong. I read the opposite while I was there, the convertible currency is to be scrapped by gradually unifying it with the lower-value Cuban peso.
The aspect of traveling to Havana that impressed me most were the people. I expected that people would be friendly because of the reviews I read on Airbnb. They were friendlier than I ever imagined, once engaged. They were no nonsense on the streets, everyone moving about their way, however if I stopped someone to ask for directions they were very eager to help and if not for the language barrier would possibly talk my ears off. Lol, at least four times I was believed to have been Cuban and it wasn't until I spoke others realized I was American. Walking around, it felt like home everyone looked like the black, brown, blue, green and white people in the States.
I met Nelson as I walked along the Malecón, "The Malecón is a broad esplanade, roadway and seawall which stretches for 8 km along the coast in Havana, Cuba, from the mouth of Havana Harbor in Old Havana, along the north side of the Centro Habana neighborhood, ending in the Vedado neighborhood." His motorcycle was parked in a turnabout while he laid, shirt off soaking up the Sun. I was taking a picture of the park behind his motorcycle and he struck up a conversation (one of the first to believe I was Cuban)
We began to talk and he explained that he had finished study for a second career, one that would allow him to operate a tour bus as a guide. He showed me a BIG manual and his contract with the tour company. He was on his 'rest' day and thought it would be great to practice his English with me, I explained I was on an award tour and ain't nobody got time for that. He countered with providing me a personalized tour on the back of his motorcycle. I told him I was looking to reveal Cuba, not the standard tourist attractions (although I did plan to see those as well) and we did all of it but he took me to his home where I met his wife, we drank Rum and smoked a cigar first. Also, everyone has pet chickens. I kept looking to see if they used them for eggs, as for as I could tell no.
We explored the Plaza de la Revolucion, Monument to Jose Marti, El Malecon, Old Square (Plaza Vieja), Old Havana, Havana Cathedral, Museum of the Revolution (Museo de la Revolucion), The Colon Cemetery, or more fully in the Spanish language Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón and The University of Havana.
The most important exchange with Nelson was conversing about the revolution, life in Cuba and the culture. Everyone is equal, doctors, receptionists, politicians; no matter the profession everyone's salary averages the same each month thanks to a Communist regime that’s been enforced since 1959 which, as a consequence, means the hustle in Cuba is also very real. Looking at the average Cuban you’d never guess the extent of their poverty, they’re extremely proud. Everyone dressed like they're going somewhere with real things to do.
I learned that often in one tiny space living together, you’ll have a mother and father, a grand-parent, a baby, plus various cousins and brothers and sisters. Certainly puts my apartment into perspective, having the nicest rooms being rented out to tourists with ac, a refrigerator, Queen platform bed and another room with a double bed whereas the Cubans are piled into one or two rooms, with shared beds. I witnessed this inside of Nelson's home and just walking along the streets, you can view right into the homes.
It was very, very hard to get a read on how Cubans truly feel about the revolution. As Nelson explained, 6 million love it, 6 million do not. Lol, I suppose those are pretty accurate statistics. The ideals of the revolution are supported by the majority and even those who do not support Castro recognize that the (socialist) government has improved the standard of living for most; education, healthcare and social security ... everyone is equal no matter their lot in life. Maybe I'm delusional but I saw some "Hollywood" Cubans; expensive clothes and nice car, seems to me some citizens have material privileges in the midst of economic hardship for everyone else. Smells like capitalism and commodification to me. Maybe you can see a short glimpse of them in this video when I fan the camera to my left, your left, all lefts.
Okay, back on track...
Communication via phone was reliable, I made three calls home and they were clear as any call I would make in the US. To call out I dialed 119, then 1, followed by the ten-digit area code and phone number using my personal cell phone as Sprint has service in Cuba, be prepared to pay a premium ... calls were $2.49/minute.
Sprint quoted me data pricing at $1.99/MB but I was unable to access data via Sprint. It was cheaper to purchase a card to use at a government provided public WI-Fi zone, I purchased a card good for an hour for 2CUC. The zones were hard to locate, at least for me, again from reading reviews on Airbnb I knew that almost the whole of the Malecón was Wi-FI enabled, rather than get lost trying to find other zones - most hotels and a few parks, I made the 15-20 minute walk straight down to the Malecón sitting across from the Melia Cohiba where I purchased my card. In today's global society, in any country if you are logging on to an unsecured connection you are putting yourself at risk of hacking so find you a good mobile VPN or be careful not to access sensitive data such as banking information or other sensitive data while connected. Even though it is Wi-Fi, in Cuba it can be characterized by limited bandwidth and slowness. You should expect to be disconnected in Cuba.
I don't know what my expectation was, I do know I was not impressed with the food. I searched for authentic Cuban restaurants but often found the food to be mediocre. In defense of, most Cubans themselves do not eat well. With extremely low salaries and an adopted socialist food production and distribution system, that basically ensures a survival level of heavily subsidized food, no one can afford to eat well. I did drink a lot of coffee, I imagine that is how I got most of my calories ;)
Nelson and Laura confirmed that the most organized religion in Cuba is Catholic, and both suggested I explore the Afro-Cuban religion of Santería, a religious system of the Yorubá people of Nigeria who were brought as slaves, a syncretism of native African religions and Roman Catholicism. It is based on the maintenance of relationships, among people and between people and deities called orishas. Since orishas were comparable to and interchangeable with Catholic saints, slaves could put on a face of Catholic piety while worshiping their own gods.
By ferry I traveled to the Regla Municipality, and sitting very close to the boat dock is a church Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla. Inside, on the main altar sits La Santísima Virgen de Regla. The virgin, represented by a black Madonna is venerated in the Catholic faith and associated in the Santería religion with Yemayá, the orisha of the ocean and the patron of sailors, in retrospect before visiting, I saw two or three in all blue representing Yemayá (always represented in blue) in the streets of Havana. This may have been the highlight of my visit, the church was not filled with other tourist, beautiful in its simplicity - It was picture perfect, worth all the worship one could bestow. Light streaming into all reaches of the church from the two doors used to enter the sanctuary.
I should have skipped this because I don't know if what I bought; handicrafts, woodcarvings, books, music and simple jewelry from a small street market count as shopping. I didn't spend much more than 25,0 CUC for all the above. My major purchase came from buying a box of cigars (25), I'll keep two or three and give the rest away.
The sudden and unexpected end. If there is something you want to know and I experienced it, I'm happy to tell you about it just ask but we out.