Mark Twain

Mark Twain

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Looking Back at Cuba

One of my most rewarding trips ever was to Cuba in May 2001.

When I travel, I don't go just to look at tourist attractions.  For me, the best part is to try and get a look at what the country is like.  If I want warm water and beaches, I can go to Florida; it is much more convenient.  I did not go to Cuba for the beaches.  I regretted not seeing more of Eastern Europe before 1989.  Although I was not sorry to see the end of those regimes, I regretted not being able to see, before it disappeared forever, more of those societies.  I remembered going to Prague in 1990 not long after the fall of the communist regime there, and then going back in 1992.  It changed remarkably in just two years, and not all in a good way.   It was quickly becoming just another European city with all of the same problems as in the west.   I did not want to miss seeing socialist Cuba, warts and all, before it disappeared.  So I went.

Flying on Iberia from London via Madrid, the flight left Madrid around 5PM.  It was still daylight as the plane closely paralleled the coast of Florida.  But by the time the plane was approaching, Havana it was pitch dark, and it was probably about 8PM.  Maybe later.

The immigration control was the first sign that I was in a very different country.   After the immigration officers very thoroughly checked each person's passport and tourist card, they had to buzz each person, one at a time, through a locked metal door to get to baggage claim.

Waiting for my luggage took at least an hour.  There were televisions in the baggage claim area showing, of course, Cuban television.  I remember a lot of cartoons with politically uplifting messages about resisting el bloqueo.

On the taxi ride to the Hotel Inglaterra in central Havana, there were a lot of billboards with messages.  Political messages, messages tell people not to be afraid of the United States, or to save electricity.  I don't think I saw a single billboard advertising something to buy the whole time I was in Cuba. 

The taxi was not one of those 1950s American cars.  It was some sort of modern car.  The "yank tank" taxis were used for "Cuban peso" taxis.  Some words about the money there:  Everything in Cuba - hotels, restaurants, bars, shops - everything - has a hard currency version and a Cuban peso (also known as moneda nacional, abbreviated MN) version.  There were actually three currencies in circulation when I was there - the U.S. dollar, the convertible peso, and the Cuban peso.  The convertible peso is a Cuban currency but it is hard currency and is pegged to the dollar.  Think of it as certificates representing U.S. dollars.  It has the same value and it could be used in place of U.S. dollars.  Now they are down to just two currencies, with the U.S. dollar having been removed from circulation and a surcharge on changing the U.S. dollar into Cuban currency.  Note - if you are planning on going, do not take U.S. dollars unless you want to pay a 10% surcharge whenever you change money.  Take Canadian dollars or Euros.  But when I was there, for most of what I bought, I used U.S. dollars cash.  It was very weird being in a communist country and spending U.S. dollars everywhere.

Before leaving the airport, I converted one of my USD$50 Barclays Bank travelers cheques to Cuban pesos.  In the nearly two weeks I was in Cuba, I just barely managed to spend that, because there's just not a lot you can buy with Cuban pesos.  Cuban peso shops tend to have low prices, but empty shelves.  With hard currency you can buy anything, and people who work in jobs in which they have access to people with hard currency are automatically in a very privileged position.  In Cuba the official line is that one Cuban peso is equal to one US dollar, but the real rate at the time was about 50 to the dollar.  Even at CADECA, the official currency exchange bureau, they would give you the market rate - presumably to prevent a black market in currency. 

It was probably nearly 11PM by the time I arrived, exhausted, at the Hotel Inglaterra.  It is a 19th century hotel in central Havana with a lot of character.  It could use a facelift though.  At the reception, they told me that the plumbing was broken in my room and so they had moved me to the Hotel Plaza, just across the Parque Jose Marti from the Inglaterra.  Lugging my crap across the park at night, I had my first encounter with the jineteros.  The jineteros are people who follow tourists around, trying to sell them black market goods.  They were on me like flies on shit for nearly the whole time I was in Cuba.  All foreigners in Cuba are instantly recognizable to Cubans.  It's like having a big neon sign on your head that says "sell me some stuff".  After braving the jineteros, I arrived at the Hotel Plaza.  After walking through the door which had a sign over it saying "Socialism plus justice equals quality and efficiency", I walked up to reception.  The surly girl at the desk checked me in, and I went up to my room.

Hotel Plaza entrance

After checking in, I unpacked and then spent a while killing the roaches that were everywhere in my three star hotel room.  They were big, like New Orleans roaches.  Then I went down to the hotel bar, which was swarming with prostitutes.  I had a couple of Cristal beers, the local hard currency brew, while swatting away the very persistent hookers.

It was more than just the roaches in Havana that reminded me of New Orleans.  The Spanish colonial architecture is like a shabbier version of the New Orleans.  And the place throbs with music.  At night, people in central Havana hang out in front of their houses, talking with neighbors, with their front doors open and with music blasting out of their houses at night.  It's not a quiet place.  Having seen how the Cubans interact with each other I got the idea that there's not a lot of privacy.

You don't go to Cuba for the food.  Most meals seemed to be some configuration of fried chicken or pork, rice, and black beans.  Or, pizza.  There isn't much to eat that is green.  I remember going to a restaurant called Hanoi which I thought was going to be somewhat Vietnamese, but seemed Cuban to me.   I guess they just named the restaurant Hanoi out of socialist brotherhood.  Still, it was one of the better restaurants.  I very much wanted to try some Cuban peso restaurants too.  There is a chain of restaurants called Doña Yulla that takes both hard currency and pesos cubanos, and I remember getting some chicken that was pink in the middle there, which I ate anyway.  And for some reason, all of the restaurants in Havana's Chinatown (yes, there is a Chinatown there) take Cuban pesos.



Ice cream is big in Cuba and there is a national chain of ice cream shops called Coppelia.  There's a big one in the Vedado section of Havana that I went to.  It's a cool modern building - built in the mid 1960s I think.  There are two sections - a Cuban peso section and a hard currency section.  I went to the Cuban peso section.  It was Mothers Day, which is a big deal in Cuba because mothers are considered heroes of socialism.  Therefore, there was a very long line (and almost no line for hard currency customers).  Like most other people, I got two servings of ice cream because it was insanely cheap -  just a few pesos, which was something like 5 cents US.

Coppelia ice cream, Havana

Coppelia Ice Cream, Havana

Vedado, Havana

Vedado, Havana

One night when I was in Havana I wanted to find a non-touristy bar.  Wandering around, I found a Cuban peso bar that was mostly outdoors.  I noticed how the Cubans would pour a little of their rum on the ground before drinking it - a custom related to Santeria, a religion of West African origin which is practiced in Cuba.  Since this was a Cuban peso place, the beer was some kind of really cheap (and probably cheaply made) brand.  I remember when I got to the bottom of the bottle there was a blob of some kind of black slime that I nearly swallowed.  Gross.  I did not order another one.

When I was in Cuba I wanted to engage with local people, but since I was a foreigner they saw me as somebody to try and sell black market stuff to, which was annoying.  I read in my guidebook that, if you have a car, picking up hitchhikers is a good way to engage with local people.  I found this to be true.  I rented a car and drove to Cienfuegos, which is sort of in the south central part of the island, and I picked up many hitchhikers.  Hitchhiking is, like most things in Cuba, organized by the state.  They have gathering points for hitchhikers where an official wearing a yellow uniform flags down cars, asks where the driver is going, and matches up drivers and passengers.  I remember giving a ride to a couple, one of whom worked for state TV.  I also gave a ride to a policeman, and some ladies who had been cutting sugar cane.

My rental car (the blue one, not the Lada).

The empty Autopista Nacional

When I rented that car, it was the one and only time in Cuba that I used a credit card, and it was only because I had to give them a card to rent a car.   I paid for my hotel in Havana back in London, before I left.  Don't try and use Amex there.  They cannot take it, because it's cleared through the U.S.  No U.S. based credit card will work there, because of the embargo.  After picking up my car at the Hotel Plaza, I headed through the tunnel under the harbor, and out onto the Via Monumental, which is a wide boulevard that parallels the coast is lined with revolutionary billboards and Soviet style apartment towers.   Then onto the ring road around Havana, then the autopista nacional, a 1950s freeway that runs the length of the island.  Most of the traffic is commercial or military.  There is so little traffic that people dry rice on the road.  At one place, a railroad track cuts across the autopista, which was surprising.  Driving along the near empty road, listening to Cuban radio stations, with the bright sun and palm trees, it was hard to believe how close by the United States was.

Near the town of Aguada de Pasajeros there is a rest stop on the autopista, then the turn off for Cienfuegos.  It was quite some distance down a secondary road to get to Cienfuegos.  Cienfuegos announced itself with apartment towers on the outskirts.  After I was in town, I had to find a place to stay because I had only prepaid my hotel in Havana.  I drove to a 1950s hotel, called the Hotel Jagua, but decided it was too expensive.  I found a family that rents out rooms to travelers and stayed there.  I had my own bathroom and a window unit air conditioner that said "Hecho en la URSS" (Made in the USSR) on it.  A kid next door to where I stayed said that if I paid him $3 per day, he would ensure that nobody stole parts off of my car.  It seemed like a bargain to me, so I paid him to not strip my rental car.

At the exit fron the Autopista Nacional to the road to Cienfuegos
Rest stop on the Autopista

The house where I stayed in Cienfuegos

Cienfuegos with Che


Cienfuegos - "We Will Never Renounce Our Principles"


Fast food place in Cienfuegos.  It sort of looks like a communist version of a strip mall.

In the two days that I stayed in Cienfuegos, I had most meals at the house.  It was included in the price.  I remember one meal when the TV was on.  When Fidel appeared on the TV, my host proudly pointed at him and said, "Our president has been fighting the United States longer than anybody else".  That made me laugh.

Cienfuegos is a pretty city with a well manicured square and well maintained buildings, a sharp contrast with the decay of Havana.  There are a lot of horse drawn carriages, which I expect you see in most places outside of Havana.

While staying in Cienfuegos I took a side trip to Playa Girón, which is the place where the Bay of Pigs invasion started.  On the way there I picked up some hitchhikers and, after taking them to their destination in some little village, I got horribly lost.  Roads are not marked well in Cuba.  I was driving in circles around this village.  Finally, I came to some kind of factory out in the middle of nowhere.  I was able to get directions from the guard who was working at the gate.  But, the directions that the guard gave me took me onto a dirt road, and to get to Playa Girón I had to drive over 20 miles on that dirt road.  As I approached Playa Girón, I came on a billboard that announced the point to which the mercenaries advanced before they were defeated.

Girón - first defeat of Yankee imperialism in Latin America

The mercenaries advanced to here.

Playa Girón
At the Playa Girón museum
Playa Girón museum

Playa Girón has a museum about the invasion, and there is a beautiful beach there.  Heading back to Cienfuegos, I took the paved road.

Somewhere between Playa Girón and Cienfuegos
Another country road shot

After getting back to Havana, I was able to stay at the hotel I had originally planned to stay in - the Hotel Inglaterra.  It's right next door to the Ballet Nacional de Cuba.  It's part of the same state owned chain that the first hotel, the Hotel Plaza, is, but I did not have to kill roaches in my room at the Inglaterra.

Back in Havana, I did some touristy things.  I went to El Floridita, where Hemingway used to hang out.  I had a couple of $12 daiquiris and they weren't too bad (I don't usually like rum).  I went to the Bodeguita del Medio, where Hemingway supposedly used to hang out.  One of the jineteros who had been following me around trying to sell me stuff started talking with me after I left there.  He gave up trying to sell me stuff and we started talking.  He told me that he was engaged to an Australian girl and was waiting for his exit visa that he needed in order to get to Australia and marry this girl.   She was going to be his ticket out of a bad economic situation.  He said that things were quite a lot better when the Soviet Union was still around.

One day I took a walk to the Plaza of the Revolution which has the José Martí memorial tower on one side, and an iconic Che Guevara sign on the other.  They have an elevator that goes to the top of the José Martí memorial and I got some great views out of there.  From up there, it is striking to see how little traffic there is on the roads.
From the top

José Martí monument

Plaza of the Revolution
Walking towards the Plaza of the Revolution. with a government ministry building with "Venceremos" (we will prevail) on top.

One day I also took a ferry across the harbor to a couple of places on the other side.  I was intending to go to a town called Casablanca.  Casablanca has a big Jesus statue that looks over Havana harbor and was completed just before the revolution.  However I got on the wrong ferry and went to Regla.  After wandering around the town of Regla for a while, I got another ferry from Regla to Casablanca.  Then another ferry back to the city.  Each ferry ride ferry cost 10 centavos cubanos, which is practically nothing.

Casablanca - the wires are for the train tracks there, the only electrified railway in the Caribbean.

Looking down from Jesus.

On my way back to the airport, I gave myself plenty of time.  I needed it too.  I remember the formalities for leaving the country took almost as long as the for coming in.  They have an "exit tax" at the airport which I paid to the border control agent while she glared at me and my passport.  I think that was probably the most unfriendly encounter that I had the whole time.  It was a great trip and I hope to go back and see what it's like now.

Rundown Havana

Cuban ingenuity - a stretch Lada taxi

Havana street

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