We were so ready for our 8:30 am flight to Cuba.
Unlike the other travelers in the Aeormexico check-in line who were lugging AC units, car tires, big boxes of laundry detergent tablets and toothpaste back to Cuba, we were tidily compact. We had our passports, our Cuban tourist visa filled out, proof of travel insurance, our tickets, and one check-in bag. What we didn’t have was the correct time.
Quintana Roo, including Cancún, is one hour ahead of the rest of Mexico this time of year. We only realized this when the desk agent told us we had missed our flight. Dope.
Fortunately we only had to buy another one-way flight. It just cost us another $150 US (little cry), but we were determined to get to Cuba! We got on the 11am flight.
There was clapping when the plane touched down safely in Havana. I clapped too.
In the well-worn José Martí we waited at the long customs lines. While the UK allows Edd to travel as a tourist, the US makes its citizens to choose under which condition, or “license”, they will travel to Cuba. I use speech marks because these licenses do not actually require any type of documentation. It just means that when you book flights or accommodation, a menu pops up with licenses, and you select one. (And you can do this your own; you DON’T need to go with a special tour group!)
Currently, the simplest license for Americans wanting to visit Cuba is “Support for the Cuban people”. Proposed by Marco Rubio, it stipulates that you must encourage free enterprise during your visit to Cuba.
Which means what, exactly? Well the Cuban government allows its citizens to convert rooms in their homes into restaurants (paladares) and B&Bs (casas particulares). These businesses are still limited by the state, but as of now these are some of the only legal free market endeavors Cubans can enjoy.
So under the “Support for the Cuban People”, you should frequent these businesses, as opposed to state-run hotels and restaurants. You should keep your receipts (or any other proof, e.g., photos) for five years, if the US government decides to check up on you.
In addition, the travel provision states that you should engage in “meaningful dialogue” with Cubans instead of in superficial exchanges.
Anyway, it constitutes a travel style that not only Edd and I are used to, but a principal that I can stand by. So I proudly received my Cuban passport stamp.
The host of our casa, María Isabel, had arranged a car to take us directly to her place in Centro Havana.
We really didn’t need to book any accommodation ahead. There are several casas particulares on each block, even outside the main tourist drag. You can spot them by the blue and white Arrendador Divisa signs.
The first day, finding a paladar to eat in was difficult because there aren’t any “official” signs. You just learn to distinguish a state-run restaurant from a private one.
We were already very disoriented on the first afternoon anyway. La Habana was a constant flow of very organized chaos: dignified Spanish colonial windows, broken water mains pumping little rivers over the broken concrete, people walking in the streets and shouting from third-story balconies, garbage overflowing the corner dumpsters, queues of eager customers outside bakeries.
What really drove the culture shock home was shopping. Nothing revealed the difference between the conditioned desire for convenience in the capitalist West (I’ll just pick up a free range caramelized quinoa roast at Whole Foods, and then pop in at FedEx to get that photo of Snowball in her Halloween costume blown up to banner size at 3am. Or to hell with it, I’ll just order it all from Amazon) and the struggles of a communist state (I would like to buy this undefined piece of metal, please?) like the shops in Central Habana.
First of all, it’s hard to even recognize what types of goods are actually sold in any one shop. The once glorious cold war era shops are now dark, dingy, and nearly empty, lit by a blueish florescent light or by sunlight veiled by streaky windows. The window displays are pathetically sparse (except in the tourist blocks of Old Havana, where shops seem to have gathered the best clothing, appliances and furniture available for slightly more confident presentations.)
And even if you were dying to get your hands on something resembling teething biscuits and large bottles of insecticide, you couldn’t just go picking them off of the shelf. What few unrelated items are for sale are kept under glass cases and you have to ask an attendant for them.
The people aren’t poor. They have food. They have homes. But they don’t have stuff.
We went to a bar where a few locals drank shots of rum. The barman said they were out of Cristal, the national beer. He only had a malty sweet one called Polar for which he charged us two dollars each.
Luckily in Bar Sarra in Old Havana, I had a café con leche which was my first real one in months. The coffee is so strong in Cuba that it sticks to your tongue, like Turkish coffee without all the grounds. I was feeling better.
Later we settled on a bar popular with tourists, called La Lluvia de Oro, on the corner of Habana and Obispo. There was a band. We befriended two guys named Pedro “Pedrito” and Samuel “El Chino”.
They told us that we’d been conned at the other bar because a beer called “Polar” doesn’t exist anymore. I told them it tasted like shit anyway. They laughed and said someone had probably put another beer in the old bottles. F**ing Cuba, I thought. But we liked these two guys.
Pedro was 49 and had worked at the state market on Obispo Street for 30 years. He’d broken his left leg at work, spent seven months in a wheelchair and two on crutches. He showed us the scar from his surgery, which left him with nine screws and a metal plate. He asked Edd if he could dance with me, and though he was gentle on his leg, he managed to get a groove going.
Then he left the bar and came back with two cigars which he said only Cubans can get their hands on, because they are state-rationed. He told us to hide them, but when a Swedish guy came in smoking a Cohiba which he had paid $13 US for, Pedro told us it was safe enough to try his.
Edd being from Inglaterra sparked a loud debate about the year when the Rolling Stones played an apparently very impressive concert in La Habana. The guys used large, open-palmed karate chop gestures to signal their conviction.
Bartender: It was in 2014, (karate chop next to Pedro’s face), because my daughter (karate chop) was just one year old! (karate chop)
Pedro: No, but how can it be 2014 (karate chop next to bartender’s face) when I tell you they came after I broke my leg! (Karate chop!)
(The Stones played a free show in March 2016).
Samuel asked me if I was a journalist because I asked a lot of questions. He gave me his copy of Granma, the daily newspaper of the communist party. He didn’t seen too invested in it. I tucked it away for later.
We bought the guys a few beers, Samuel went home to his wife and Pedro bought us beer from a little corner shop. Neither he nor Edd had a lighter for their cigarettes, and we had to go to four clandestine shops to find one. When they finally found one, it was broken.
“You know,” Pedro said, “the government gives you everything you need: food, school, health… but no es libertad. It’s not freedom.
I work six days a week and I earn $12 CUC ($12 US) a month. There are only two ways you can make money in Cuba: by opening a restaurant or renting rooms.”
He invited us back to his house around 1am, where we woke up his girlfriend, Jaymara. She’d been sleeping in their bed in the tiny living room, right next to the sofa. She was clearly pissed off that Pedro was drunk, so we took the hint and left. Pedro insisted that we visit him at work the next day for lunch.
On the street, a young woman in her pajamas was selling Coca Cola and Oreos from her front room. She was also cooking hamburgers on an electric grill. We ordered one. The meat was about as dense as a sponge cake, but she added fresh tomatoes and lettuce. Finally, this we knew was truly a private (and probably illegal) enterprise.
Though we ended the night on a positive, Edd said he couldn’t wait to go back to Mexico.
On Saturday morning, we were walking towards Old Havana, just slightly more sure of ourselves, when we were stopped by a group of three guys in the front room of a house. They were drinking bottles of Cristal beer and playing cards.
They had questions. Where were we from? Did we like R&B? Chris Brown? Would they make a profit if they bought limited edition Queen Elizabeth II gold coins from the internet? We found ourselves stepping into these coversations a lot.
A woman came in the room carrying a tray of 48 eggs. Others on the street were balancing crates of eggs too. Was it egg day? What universe were we in?
We met Pedro at the market where he was working. We had lovely fried chicken lunch and invited him to a beer.
He said that since the Hurricane Irma this past September, eggs have been hard to come by. So when they arrive in the city, people snatch them up and resell them for double the price.
Long counters lined the walls of the market. At one, people lined up to get bags of condensed milk and cheese with their coupons. I handed Pedro a box of assorted Ritter Chocolates which I’d originally brought as a gift for the host of our casa. I told Pedro to give them to poor Jaymara, for waking her up the night before.
“Bah, she’s hates it when I drink and smoke. She spends all day reading the Bible. When I come home she says, ‘Ahh, Pedro! May God forgive you!'” He laughed so hard that tears came to his eyes.
Edd wanted to do a classic car tour. You can get one from the Parque Central. We ended up in a 1949 Chevy.
The car was the most fun part of the tour. We enjoyed the wide backseat of the covertible while the driver, Miguel, very rehearsedly pointed out hospitals, various ministry buildings, the university, the famous hotel on the boardwalk, the Martí Monument, and John Lennon Square. Edd said the tour was defos government-designed.
On Saturday night we ate at pricey paladar Doña Blanquita. But the good news was that La Habana was hosting the International Jazz Fest while we were there! There was an 11pm show at La Fábrica del Arte in the Vedado neighborhood. We hadn’t heard of the place, but we chose well.
Outside, the line was made up of both Cubans and tourists alike. The young Cuban guys wore skinny jeans and had really cool spiky haircuts. Hawkers offered to help you move up the line for a price. Other guys sold Wrigley’s gum.
Inside the cultural center was a maze of artwork, bars, restaurants and concert stages. They served STRONG mojitos (one saw me through the night).
We saw the incredibly energetic and transfixing Ramón Valle trio. They weaved in some of Lionel Richies’s “All Night Long” and Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ’til you Get Enough” into the syncopated rhythms of Cuban jazz.
Valle dedicated one song to his five “chocolates”—his daughters. You will see that Cubans do not squirm when talking about their colors, which is so nice.
On Sunday we went to the to buy internet cards. We bought the cards officially from the ETECSA office. They cost one dollar for an hour.
To use the internet, you need to find a plaza (called parques) that has WiFi hotspot. Just look for kids on their phones. Then use your card to log in.
We had a delicious cheap lunch at a nearby paladar. We were getting the hang of spotting them. At least for the moment, paladares looked exactly what you think someone’s house might look like: mismatched plates, tables, chairs, usually one person serving you. Pictures of Jesus or Mary were a dead giveaway. Or pictures of kids. State-run restaurants seemed sterile by comparison, and merely functional.
We walked down The Paseo del Prado, then along the malecon near Old Havana (Habana Vieja).
A guy selling kites stopped us for a chat. He thought it was hilarious that Prince Harry invited Obama to his royal wedding, and not Trump. Like many people outside of America, the Cubans we spoke to talked about Obama with God-like reverence. After all, he proposed to end the embargo, which began when my father was just a month old.
Habana Vieja was gorgeous. But there were plenty of tourists there, some fresh off the boat. The cruise boat that is.
At Bar La Victoria near the port, the bartender, Regla, a beautiful black woman in a head wrap, was drinking a bottle of Tínima, another domestic beer.
Her only daughter became pregnant at 14, but she was happy to have three grandchildren, the youngest a beautiful black girl (“una negra lindísima”). A woman sitting at the bar was her daughter’s former primary teacher. She used to teach the normal kid’s P.E. activities, “You know…” they said, twirling their hands in the air, “like fencing”.
When Regla went to serve another customer, the other woman turned to us and whispered “Shampoo?” several times, pointing at my hair, without elaborating. I finally understood that she wanted some, if we had any. I apologized that we didn’t.
They tried to convince us to take the bus home. They even walked us to the bus stop with them so we’d get on the right one. They even offered to pay our bus fare, because we didn’t have any Cuban pesos (the currency that the locals use). Edd wasn’t in the mood for waiting for the bus though, so we thanked them for their help and walked home.
Sunday night was the last night of the Jazz Fest. We ended up at the FAC again!
The Adrián Ortíz Trio was playing, and the percussionist was from Detroit. I let out a whoop at this announcement, which got the attention of an American couple behind us.
They hadn’t gotten their passports stamped, even though they had selected the same “license” that I had. No wonder Americans are so confused about visiting Cuba, Edd said. Even the people who visit legally think they’re doing something wrong.
We were starting to understand and really enjoy Havana. We wanted to try more paladars, see more jazz, and meet more people. In fact, we started to strongly doubt our original plan to visit another city for a few days.
But our casa particular was starting to wear thin. I could feel the springs of the bed poking me in the back. And Edd hated that the only window we had opened into a long, damp hallway.
Our Lonely Planet warned that some casa owners will treat you like a paycheck. And that’s kind of how we felt. The breakfasts were pretty skimpy for five bucks a piece. And the owner was a bit pushy. She kept asking what our travel plans were. Finally we said we were thinking about visiting the city of Trinidad. When we came back that afternoon, she’d taken it upon herself to book a house for us there. And she was disappointed when we told her we’d beaten her to it!
We were glad to leave her house, but a little more reluctant to leave Havana.