My wife and I recently returned from our honeymoon in Havana, Cuba. The trip was challenging, exhausting, and an extremely valuable experience. (We were uncertain whether the Trump administration would even allow us to travel there, but, since we had our plane tickets before June 4, we were essentially grandfathered in.) I’m glad to be back in the familiar First World, but I’m also looking forward to the possibility of future visits to the famous Caribbean island. Below, I have provided some journal entries and observations.
Today was our first day in Cuba, and I’m exhausted. It has been rather difficult so far, primarily due to the language barrier, but also because this is essentially a different world. After we got through Customs, Ariel and I found ourselves waiting in some random line, attempting to exchange American dollars for who knows what (Ariel’s friend had told her she had gotten euros, but we didn’t really know what we were doing).
A middle-aged woman wearing an indistinguishable uniform suddenly showed up out of the woodwork and began chatting with Ariel. It turned out she had an office at the airport and indicated she could give us a better deal exchanging our dollars for pesos. So we followed her into the office and got 270 pesos (CUC) for $300. (The exchange rate is 1 to 1, so we essentially paid a $30 fee, which isn’t bad.)
With pesos in our pockets, we followed her out of the office and across the street to another building where she said she could find us a ride to our casa particular. After some mixed Spanish/English dialogue, we soon found out that this wasn’t an actual taxi; the driver was working airport security and agreed to give us a ride for 25 pesos (CUC). Suddenly, I realized a different woman was walking with us as we followed the man to his car. I think she worked at the airport as well, and was just being super helpful. She asked for the address we needed to go to, as well as the phone number of our host.
Soon enough, Ariel and I found ourselves chugging down the streets of Havana in a lime green, gas-guzzling jalopy from the 1950s. As we passed palm trees, mopeds, and billboards promoting the revolution, the woman in the front seat conversed with us. She knew some English, and Ariel and I know some Spanish, so, although it wasn’t the most efficient conversation, we did learn a few things. First of all, she mentioned that the government wants more American dollars (probably due to the embargo). This was likely why we got a good deal on the currency exchange.
The context for this revelation was that the woman wanted to travel to the U.S., but was barred (first of all because of Trump’s travel ban, and, on a related note, the local banks wouldn’t exchange her pesos for U.S. dollars). She told us her daughter — who lives in Indianapolis — recently had a baby, and showed us a few photos. The woman also mentioned a possible loop-hole; she may be able to travel to Panama or Mexico first, then from there to the U.S. Either way, it was disheartening to meet a victim of the State Department’s newfangled, Cold War-inspired restrictions.
When we arrived at our destination, I paid the driver 30 pesos, and he seemed ecstatic. The woman walked with us to find our casa and then gave us hugs before departing. A smiling man opened the gate for us and an elderly women exited the front door, speaking to us briefly in the most fluent English we had heard since we arrived.
“Hello — welcome! Your apartment is up the stairs,” she said. “Diana will meet you at five o’ clock.”
The upstairs featured a front porch followed by a long hallway with two bedrooms, a small kitchen and dining room, and finally, a spacious outdoor patio from which we could observe residential rooftops. The front and back door were wide open, in an attempt to cool the place down. There were several fans running, and small air conditioning units in each of the bedrooms. The kitchen utensils, appliances, and general decor appeared to be from the 1970s or 80s. Diana had left us bottled water and fresh mangos in the fridge.
After settling in, we ventured out to a nearby restaurant. The food was simple, yet delectable (fried tortillas with black beans, veggies, and bean sprouts and toast with hummus as an appetizer) and the architecture featured tall ceilings, chandeliers, and numerous brawny pillars. Artwork adorned the entirely white interior and enormous open windows overlooked a busy street. Our server commented with glee at Ariel’s massive hand-held fan and continued being extremely affable for the duration of our meal. It was certainly a magical first day.
Today was kind of shitty so far, although our breakfast that Diana left us was delicious. We spent about an hour walking around, trying to find a non-existent internet café. Eventually, after walking down the coast for a while (which was breathtakingly beautiful), we came across a Ministry of Tourism building. We picked up a few maps (which we needed due to lack of cellular serivice), sat down for a while, and then tried communicating with the lady at the front desk. After a few failed attempts to ask about tours and internet, she ended up pointing us in the direction of the Presidential Hotel, only two blocks away. There we were finally able to access the internet at a rate of two pesos for one hour (we were given a scratch-off card with an access code at the front desk). I think the name of the state Wi-Fi service is “Etecsa.”
Later, we ended up eating at the same restaurant as we did yesterday. I started noticing there’s a fair amount of stray dogs and cats milling around.
Saturday (Ariel’s birthday)
Today ended up being decent, despite my sinus headache. We awoke to a wonderous breakfast consisting of a beautiful fruit plate, toast with olive/avocado spread, a thermos of coffee, and a strange potato puree cake (which ended up being an acquired taste, but I did finish it). Diana also left a very thoughtful birthday card, some candy, a candle, and a book of matches. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough water, so we ate some fruit and then went back to Nely’s for bottled water. We returned and finished our breakfast.
Ariel wanted to go to the beach for her birthday, so we embarked on a little journey. Strangers said buenos dias as we as we made our way to Hotel Presidente. We paid for Wi-Fi, exchanged $200 USD for 175 CUC, and looked up nearby beaches. Ariel chose one called Playa de Santa Maria del Mar, so we exited the hotel and hopped in a cab.
The driver was very kind and offered to pick us up when we were finished at the beach (we agreed on 2:00 p.m.). Our drive was probably about 25 minutes, with plenty of intriguing landmarks along the way (old castles, sculptures, statues, an enormous billboard of Che Guevara, etc.). Upon entering the beach, a man wearing a red Under Armour shirt and a straw hat offered us chairs and an umbrella for a small fee.
It was a very relaxing afternoon, but the sweltering heat started getting to us after about an hour and a half. (It turns out that, even after four years in Texas, the Cuban sun is still too much for this gringo to handle.) We walked out about an hour early, planning to look for a place to eat, but the driver was already there waiting for us! The man was finishing a beer from the small cantina across the street from the beach (the same establishment where I had ordered una agua grande 30 minutes earlier). We hopped back in and he dropped us off at our casa (the entire trip was 50 CUC, which is pretty expensive, but worth it for the experience).
Since I had saved leftovers from breakfast, we finished the food, lounged around, and napped in our tiny air-conditioned room for a few hours. After taking showers, we walked to a nearby restaurant called California Café. We ordered mojitos, fried rice (which contained carrots, peppers, and onions), fried plantains with hummus, papas fritas, and vegetable skewers. The meal was excellent, and we even ordered two additional servings of rice and four waters para llevar. On the way home, I photographed a mural of Ernest Hemmingway and an old iglesia. Ariel concluded that it had been a successful birthday.
It seemed as though we were finally learning how to navigate life in Cuba as foreign tourists (essentially how to procure water, food, taxis, and internet access).
Today we decided to “do nothing,” which we knew would still consist of hunting down food and water. I awoke to a tenacious dog barking and realized I had a stomach ache. I quipped that it was time to wake up because the perro had crowed in lieu of a rooster (although we did once stumble upon a stray rooster during one of our walks). Dianna left us breakfast on the patio, but we were disappointed to discover that it didn’t include any fruit.
We ended up walking back to Hotel Presidente to access the internet for an hour (after first stopping at Nely’s for six bottles of water). I posted some recent photos on social media and attempted to download some movies for later. Ariel found a restaurant (Camino al Sol), which we walked to, but unfortunately they were closed because it’s Sunday. We walked a few more blocks to a fancy restaurant called Habana Mia 7 and ordered a bunch of sides (potatoes, sautéed veggies, salad, and bread). With full stomachs, Ariel and I took our remaining food para llevar and hailed a taxi outside. Based on our previous taxi, we were pleasantly surprised that the driver only wanted three pesos! (I paid him four.)
We retired to our casa, where I watched a Netflix documentary called El Che.
Today we took a bus tour around Havana and stopped at Central Park to walk to Museo de la Revolución. The bus was double-decker, and Ariel loved it. There was a lot of walking involved, so I’m completely exhausted, but it was worth it. I photographed the exhibits at the museum, and I also purchased two small magnets (one of Che and one of Fidel) and a book about Che. The book is called Notes on Ernesto Che Guevara’s Ideas on Pedagogy by Lidia Turner Martí (who has a Ph.D. from the University of Havana).
Over the course of the entire day, we basically saw the entire city (famous statues, hotels, parks, and other landmarks). On the way back, we hitched a ride in this little pedicab thing — like a three-wheeled motorcycle with two seats in the back and a rounded roof. Unfortunately, the driver took us to the wrong place and the fare was pretty expensive, but, once again, it was worth it.
The next day we had to catch a taxi to the airport at 11:30 a.m. After breakfast, Ariel and I packed up our belongings and headed to a little souvenir shop off of Calle 23. It was the perfect way the wrap up our adventure. Diana had scheduled the taxi and was ready to send us on our way. We gave her a hug and a customary cheek kiss, and hopped in the cab.
During our five-hour layover in Atlanta, I had some time to reflect. What could I do to have a smoother trip next time? Well, now I know that learning as much Spanish as possible is crucial. I could get by on what I knew, but it wasn’t nearly enough. And learning about hailing cabs is important. Taxi drivers will often charge two or three times the normal rate if they realize you’re a tourist. If you’re short on cash (as we were), it can be beneficial to haggle (we once talked a driver from 10 CUC down to 4). Also, knowing where and how to access the internet is extremely helpful (most hotels and other tourist spots will have cards available). I would also want to bring more cash next time, since we did not witness a single ATM (we were down to 6 pesos by the end). And, in general, I would ideally spend a lot more time preparing and planning before the hypothetical next trip to Cuba.
But I also realized that traveling to a Third World country isn’t necessarily about having a “smooth trip.” As was the case when I joined AmeriCorps many years ago, part of the point is to increase your capacity for empathy; to catch a glimpse of the hardships of others. I thought about how everything was so quaint and how I’d get these invasive American thoughts like, “Why is this percolator so tiny? It only makes 5 oz. of coffee at a time,” or “There’s barely any water pressure in the shower and I can’t control the temperature.” Then I’d realize my cultural standards are completely arbitrary. I’d go outside and see cracks in buildings and ancient automobiles, and yet Havana was buzzing along, asking permission from no Yankee.
This reminded me of the tremendous accomplishments of Cuba as a nation. The ongoing revolution essentially defeated its belligerent neighbor to the north, not only at the Bay of Pigs, but by continuing to exist — with universal healthcare, education, and housing, nonetheless — despite a brutal and relentless economic blockade. It ended the ruthless rein of U.S.-backed dictator Fulgensio Batista, and reclaimed its land from United Fruit Company and other neocolonial entities. In recent years, Cuba has even developed a lung cancer vaccine, ended mother-to-child HIV transmissions, and become a world leader in hurricane preparedness and recovery. Cubans are poor; there’s no doubt about it. But, while they live modest lives, they are also independent, sovereign, and triumphant.
They also have the best mangoes.