Havana – Home to gold medal scammers

Full set of Havana photos are here

Cuba immediately lived up to stereotypes.  After being waved through immigration by incredibly glamorous customs officials we changed some money, bought a map and jumped in a taxi.  The taxi got about ten metres from the airport before breaking down.  We were not in some cool 50s Cadillac but a small modern car of some description.  The driver turned it over a few time but every time it sputtered to life it died again as soon as he tried to put it in gear.  He got out, opened the hood, tweaked a few things, tried to start the engine, and repeated this process a good few times, assuring us this wouldn’t take long.  This his mates come over to offer some advice on what might be wrong.  All the while we’re sitting in a lane of the arrivals terminal.  What in many airports of the world would be a catastrophically inconvenient obstacle to outgoing traffic is just part of the scenery in Cuba where people cram into whatever car is available and get around by bicycle or horse and cart.

By this stage we had removed ourselves from the back seat of the taxi and the driver took this opportunity to lift the back seat up and bang underneath it on what I can only assume was the location of the gas tank.  After a good ten minutes of reassuring noises he finally admitted defeat and rolled his taxi off the road while the next one in line came to pick us up and drive us through the crumbling Havana streets to our casa particular.

Under Raul Castro the country was opened up to tourism in the early 90s after the ‘special period’.  The is a propaganda euphemism for when the economy went to crap.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union Cuba lost its major backer and there wasn’t anything left for the economy to fall back on.  People ran out of food and were having sugar and water for breakfast while raising pigs in their bathroom as a means of survival.  Tourism is one of the new winners in the Cuban economy.  The casa owners pay the government CUC$200/month to operate regardless of whether they have guests.   Although a lot of people fly in to the resorts for all-inclusive holiday packages the cheaper option is to stay in casa particulars which are private homes where people have been authorised to devote a room or two to hosting paying tourists.  At $25 – $30 a night they are not only a bargain but give you some interaction with the locals and provide the best meals in Cuba.

The most confusing part of travel in Cuba is the monetary system.  Tourists are given Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) to use, while locals generally use Cuban Pesos (CUP).  The CUC is worth about 20 times the CUP, so you obviously don’t want to pay for something valued in CUP with your CUCs, but it’s not always clear which is which.  I guess this monetary segregation is another way to stop Cubans being able to leave, as most of the population only has access to a currency of lesser value, not that Cubans can leave easily anyway, needing a letter from a foreigner guaranteeing them.  The two currencies also end up segregating tourists and locals to a large degree, as what may be cheap for a tourist could be prohibitively expensive for a local.  For instance, the rental on two beach chairs from the tourist resort at Playa Ancor is CUC$4 (roughly AUS$4) but this would be beyond contemplation for most locals just to lounge on the beach.  As a tourist this makes you very valuable as you have rare and valuable CUCs.  It’s a confusing system for everyone.

Our Cuban stereotype overload reached boiling point the next day when we were caught in a very enjoyable scam, the closest to a win-win scam I can imagine.  Sarah and I do not look Cuban.  We blended into Canadian society like a ninja but when we wander around downtown Cuba there is absolutely no escaping the fact that we stick out like a sore thumb and her index finger.  We might as well be flashing in neon it’s so obvious, and that flashing light draws all sorts of moths -the taxi bicicletta drivers asking if we want a ride, the taxi drivers asking if we want a ride, touts advising us to go to restaurants, beggers after some change.  This time as we wandered through the streets of Old Havana looking for a bank from which to extract some money we were warmly accosted by a lady with her aunt and son in tow.

“Hello, where are you from?  Austria?  I have friends in Vienna.  Oh, kangaroos, yes yes.”

Her hook was irresistibly attractive.  “Do you want to come to a free festival with the Buena Vista Social Group?”

It’s hard to argue with a free festival of Cuban music with lots of people around, and given point eight of the travellers charter to be open to new experiences, we thought why not.  We followed them through the streets, keeping our distance from them when we saw a policeman as they advised us that it’s not good for locals to be seen with tourists.  We ended up at a nice looking cafe where there was indeed a Cuban band with an old guy who could well have been in Buena Vista Social Club.  It was mojitos all round while the band whipped through some classic Cuban tunes.  I reluctantly had a dance with the aunt who didn’t make eye contact as I tried to avoid stepping on her feet with my much admired five finger shoes.  Sarah danced with the mother in a much more flamboyant way.  They all looked incredibly bored when they weren’t flattering us or pretending to be interested.  We bought a $12 CD from the band which was autographed by the band leader who also took a photo with us.  Then our interlocutor’s voice dropped as she confided in Sarah in a low voice that she needed money to buy beans and rice for her family.  She pitched a price and we gave her less.  Then we paid the massively over-inflated bill for the drinks, effectively the same as buying them at the Opera Bar.  So although we got ripped-off slightly (well, quite a lot by local standards), we had about as authentic an Havanan experience as you can get.

Our street smarts only got worse at the Hotel Plaza where we went to get a big stack of money out using our credit card. Getting money out in Cuba is not straight forward.  None of our cards worked at the ATM at the airport and we had limited cash on us, so getting a large amount out now was essential for our travels lest we end up bedraggled backpackers living on one meal per day.  The Hotel Plaza has a little teller with a security guard where tourists go to extract money.  Only one person may approach the counter at a time so Sarah went first for her money blessing but the card was rejected.  The second card was rejected as well.  I now approached with our last chance or the thirty days we were spending in Cuba would be off to a very rocky start.

The internet in Cuba is woeful.  Forget accessing wifi, you’re lucky if the bank can make a connection to the outside world.  The card slid through the reader and then we waited while whatever passes for telecommunications in Cuba kicked into life and my request for cash slowly made its way to the outside world.  Then we waited for an answer and waited some more.  There is a lot of waiting in Cuba, less so for tourists than the locals who have to line up for everything.  Finally a promising looking Spanish word flashed up on the card reader and we had access to a big pile of convertible pesos.  Even though we were getting CUCs from the Hotel Plaza money grille this was cash to last at least a couple of weeks and it added up to a fat stack of notes.  We stuffed them in Sarah’s hat for the trip across the lobby to arrange money belts in the toilets.  I went in first, counted out roughly half the money and was getting my money belt organised when I heard Sarah open the door to the men’s toilet and yell out “Is everything ok in there?”.  “Fine thanks,” I yelled back.  “Just counting out this huge pile of cash.”  Actually, I think I just yelled back YES and came out with money belt strapped on and half the cash still in Sarah’s hat.  In the time I had been in the toilet Sarah forgot what we were doing and just began to focus on her new urge to use the toilet for its more traditional purpose.  When I handed her the hat she forgot it had a pile of money in it which promptly spilled all over the floor.  The two female cleaners standing nearby got wide eyes.  It was possibly more money than they make in a year (a Cuban doctor gets about CUC$24 a month).   “Cuidado”, one of the ladies said.  Be careful, especially out on the street.  I think we got all the kinks out of the system in that one morning.  We walked back to the casa trying to ignore all the touts saying “Where are you from?” but still gave money to one beggar who wouldn’t stop hugging me, an old guy who needed to travel a long way to get new glasses, a guy playing his weathered trombone while sitting on the sea wall, and drew the line at the rapper / primary school English teacher who wanted to have a few drinks with us.  Being a tourist in Havana can be tiring.

The casa particulares, government sanctioned private homes which have a spare room or two for tourists, might not sound like the most attractive offer but the homes are often incredible with vast high-ceilinged buildings and spacious internal courtyards.  They are much more inviting than most of the hotels.  Really, they’re just like B&Bs with an optional dinner, a B&B&D.

The food suffers from a similar problem to Argentina, lack of variety.  It’s hard to say what the food was like before the revolution, but since the US embargo and rationing was introduced it’s fair to say that there is not an international smorgasbord of options.  The standard of cooking has been very good with some beautiful fresh seafood.  Lobster is common as muck, so much so that we’ve turned it down because we don’t want it twice in a row.  The fish has been very fresh as well, served in a simple way with some salt and fresh lime.  All meals come with sliced cucumber, sliced tomato, avocado with optional oil and vinegar, rice and either fried potato or fried banana.  When you go east beans and rice starts popping up on the menu as well.  Fresh tropical fruit and juices are plentiful as is the beer.  The rum is cheap as chips – 90 cents for a shot of the super smooth Havana Club 7-year old.  You can’t get Bacardi here as the family left the country and has been involved in attempts to unseat Castro.  Beef is very uncommon as Castro owns all the cows (note: a lot of facts about the political system are coming from conversations we’ve had with people and haven’t been thoroughly cross-checked, but that piece of info is in the guide as well).  People eat mainly pork with some chicken.  Breakfast is eggs, some kind of bread and fresh fruit and juices.  In one casa we got all-bran and warm milk but I’m not sure how common that is.

It’s common for a casa to take your booking and then when you arrive give their apologies and palm you off to a nearby casa.  This hasn’t worked out too badly for us.  You will always find somewhere to stay as there is an incredible informal network of casa particulare owners across the country who hook each other up.  In Havana we had just this experience.  We stayed our first night at a nice old place with antique furnishings where we had a three-course lobster dinner for about $12 each.  The casa we were palmed off to for the second night felt a bit more like staying in someone’s house as we had to traipse through their living room and up the stairs to reach our room, but it was large with a balcony viewing the sea and a terrace on the roof.  Across the road the Santeria drumming started early.  Santeria is a Cuban religion, a mixture of the African religious beliefs brought to Cuba with the slaves and the ornate Catholicism introduced by the Spanish.  Practitioners wear all-white or yellow outfits, depending when they were born and who their saint is, and listen to a lot of drumming.  The drums across the street went for a good seven hours in front of a room full of people crammed into what looked like the living room on the second floor of a house.  There wasn’t a lot of dancing, just chanting and drumming.  It added some flavour to our siesta.

We had a brief stay in Havana initially as we wanted to get to the coast for a break.  We will return before we fly out for more in depth investigations.  Our dinner before leaving was in the open air on a balcony in the balmy night air overlooking the fort and sea wall with some ridiculously cheap and tasty seafood.

Full set of Havana photos are here

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