It’s raining, as we slide our way through the last couple of alleyways to the restaurant. I thought the rain would bring a welcome relief to the stifling heat, but it only proved to intensify the humidity, as beads of swear were replaced with sticky patches of rain.
Music echoes out faintly in the distance, bouncing the sound around the now damp and deserted streets. Almost everyone has taken shelter somewhere out of view, and an eerie silence descends on an otherwise usually bustling street of Old Havana.
We reach the entrance, our minds collectively pondering the different selections, as a man blocks our way from entering. He talks for a few moments with our Argentinean friend, and from picking up the odd word and hand signals, I get the gist of the conversation.
With a frown, Argentina turns around and tells us we can’t go in – because it’s raining. We look around at the other people already seated under some large umbrellas. ´But isn’t it our choice if we want to get wet?´ ´Can’t we just huddle under one of the big umbrellas, or even under one of the trees providing a slight cover?’ we reason with him.
But no, he wasn’t interested – and it wasn’t even a personal thing. It didn’t matter that they were turning down a group of travellers –it was raining, this was the rules and this is Cuba. We mused to ourselves as we left, but none of us were particularly shocked. We had all been in Cuba long enough by this point to know that it is no use asking questions ´but why do they…? Or ´Wouldn´t it be better if they…?´. Illogical and fascinating, enigmatic and frustrating – Welcome to Cuba!
A feeling somewhere between apprehension and excitement was building up inside of me, as I safely landed in Havana in the late afternoon. The apprehension mainly stemming from the impending trip from the airport to the accommodation, while attempting to not get too ripped off or mugged, is one of my least favourite parts of travelling.
I had prepared myself for a culture shock, I had a vision of what Cuba might be like in my head, though in reality I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Immigration was a surprising breeze, albeit the bags were an hour or so late as the conveyor was either broken, or they were busy searching the bags.
Outside the terminal it looked peculiarly calm, as I had expected a complete free-for-all hustler fest. Inside, however, there was much more chaos. ATM´s weren’t working and places to change your money to Cuban currency didn´t appear to be open (side note: they have two currencies – but I won’t bother explaining).
A long story short, and after much walking around asking people and being sent to the wrong place, I eventually managed to change my Mexican Pesos in to CUC (CUC is the tourist currency, and 1 CUC = $1). The cashier reluctantly handed over my CUC with a face like I’d shot her dog dead right in front of her, and I made a dash for the Taxi stand.
I could see others still floundering, looking increasingly exasperated with non working bank cards as they roamed around the terminal aimlessly, in obvious distress. I caught a cab with an Aussie couple I’d met on the flight, glad to be away from the airport, though nowhere near as hectic as I had envisaged.
Despite having the address of my accommodation, along with a map and the two adjacent streets (unusually prepared for once, and luckily so), the taxi driver – who had earlier told me he had been driving for 35 years – was unable to find it. We had already agreed on a price, so I wasn’t too bothered as I took in my new surroundings in my impromptu tour of the city.
I liked it instantly. One of the first things I noticed was the lack of advertisements, and apart from the occasional piece of socialist propaganda, it gave the place a peaceful feeling – to my eyes at least. We passed a giant mural of Che Guevera, towering high up on a building, and that’s when it really hit me: Shit yeah, I’m in Cuba!
Eventually the Taxi driver found the street – ominously named Hospital (though no hospital in sight), and after a few minutes the door let out a loud buzz and I was inside. The accommodation, which was the cheapest in Havana, was a cross between a Casa Particular and a Hostel. Hostels don’t really exist in Cuba, and the majority of people stay in the ´Casa Particulars´, which is usually a family house with a spare room or two. There are a huge selection of them, and they are donated by a small blue sign outside and moderated very heavily by the Government.
For 5 CUC a night ($5), including a terrace and, I had really hit the spot with ‘Hamel Hostel´. An elderly couple lived in the building, and had converted 3 of the spare rooms in to dorm type bedrooms, with 3 or 4 bunk beds in each.
I hadn’t really eaten all day, and was shown a pizza place by an Irish guy from the hostel. Just a takeaway type place (actually more of a hole in the wall of someones house), I felt like I had been waiting forever. People were seemingly getting their pizzas in no order, some were quick, others like me were waiting over half an hour, and I’d only ordered a Margarita.
I decided to attempt some polite Spanish, in case my order had been forgotten. I had a suspicion that my pizza had probably been given to someone else, as there didn’t seem to be any system to how the pizzas found the right owner. After I spoke he just stared at me, completely expressionless. Did he understand me? Does he hate me? Or does he just not give a shit about his job – probably all 3.
After another 20 minutes, I am close to walking away – I hadn’t paid anything at this stage, but the same man calls over to me Pizza queso?? (Cheese Pizza). Si, I replied hopefully, but it still didn’t turn up. At least he had acknowledged that I was alive. Another 15 minutes or so probably passed until I eventually got the pizza. Well over an hour, probably 90 minutes after my initial order I had the cheesy goodness in my hands, and in another 60 seconds it was gone. I had no energy other then to walk back to the hostel and sleep, welcome to Cuba indeed.
As first days go, it could have been worse – I spoke with two German guys who had booked their first few nights in a hotel. When they arrived and tried to check in, they were asked for a printed reservation. They had all of their information, including passports but no, they were not allowed to check in until they had a printed receipt. An electronic one on a tablet was not good enough either.
They said that they walked around trying to find a place to print, but to no avail. Eventually, after speaking with the very top boss of the hotel, they were given special dispensation to stay the night, as long as they had printed confirmation the next day. Thee sort of occurrences were particularly rare, and sometimes expected.
It’s hard to know where to start when talking about Cuba. A polarising place in almost every extent, some people I met loved it, others not so much, but everyone I spoke to at least appreciated the bizarre and uniqueness of the country, something I’m not sure can be found anywhere else in the world. At times you felt in a time warp, and at other times it can feel disappointingly modern. The contrast is huge between the beautiful but touristy old Havana, and the fast crumbling and frail, albeit charismatic, central Havana. Our hostel was in central Havana, and you really did feel part of Cuban life, eating and drinking in all of the places the locals frequent.
The sheer amount of people who just sit on their steps, or out in the street, leaving their doors wide open, is something that takes a bit of time to get used to. It is great to watch so many kids playing football, or more commonly baseball in the streets, and Havana really does have a community feel about the place, even despite its huge size. At first I was a bit on guard walking the streets at night, but you fast learn that Havana is most likely one of the safest places you will ever visit, and for 99% of travellers the only problem is the annoyance of the hustlers trying to sell you cigars or other wares. If same area was in an American city somewhere, you wouldn’t even feel comfortable walking through it during the day. A strange concept.
I’d heard Cuba to be a very expensive place from people I had spoken to before the trip, but this definitely does not have to be the case. Family sized pizzas or a bowl of spaghetti could be found for 1 CUC in central Havana, and there were also cheap bars if you hunted them out. Passed down from person to person at the hostel like an old wives tale, there was a bar which made Mojitos for a quarter of a CUC – about 10 or 20 times cheaper then some places in Old Havana. It took a bit of finding and it looks just like a large house from the outside, but inside is a small but bustling bar with mainly younger studenty looking Cubans with the occasional group of travellers.
Staying in the hostel, there was a real sense of community and togetherness from the travellers. Most people would do things in groups, perhaps to keep each other sane, but generally there was a closer bond here then I have felt in most other places. Perhaps Cuba just draws a particular type of person – everyone I met was either extremely friendly and/or interesting, or a little strange and crazy. Sometimes a combination, but none more so then a French Canadian dubbed ´Jesus´.
I couldn’t do him justice to try and explain him, but to this day he is one of the most fascinatingly peculiar people I have ever met. It was great entertainment just watching him interacting with people and places in an otherworldly way. He missed his flight 3 times before eventually leaving, and I was sad to see him go.
Five of us from the hostel formed a particularly tight group, and we made plans to explore places outside of Havana. The capital is a fascinating place that you could spend months in and still not feel like you really knew it, but it can also feel taxing, and after several days I was pleased to be seeing something new, and a little more relaxed.
My one main regret is spending too much of my time in Havana, and while I really enjoyed my time there, it was when we got out of there that I enjoyed my time the most. The five of us took a trip to Vinales for a couple of nights, which is a relaxed and tranquil town. Although it is a little touristy, it still maintains a very chilled vibe, which is what we were all looking for.
There is a lot to do in the surrounding areas, and we only covered some of it. One of the days we rented bikes and went out riding, and on another we spent almost the entire day on a walking tour. After hiring a guide for the day (at the girls insistence), he took us through tobacco fields, showed us how cigars are made and rolled, and then the highlight being a cave which led to an underwater lake we could swim in.
In my head, Cuba was going to be a bit of a salsa-fest, but I didn´t really experience any until Vinales, where we went to a Casa de Musica and tried out our (or at least my) pretty shocking skills, and ending in some sort of party in a nearby cave. Two of the five sadly had to leave to catch flights after Vinales, and we were down to three for our journey back to Havana.
Befote getting back to the capital, we decided to spend a night in Las Terrazas, which we didn’t know too much about. We stumbled across what was a real gem of a place, called the Banos de San Juan. After a long taxi, and even longer walk with our backpacks, and while listening to Bob Marley to make us forget about the weight and heat – we arrived at this beautiful spot.
A natural river with campgrounds, huts and idyllic swimming holes, there was only a handful of people around and most of them were Cubans. It seems to have somehow slipped under the radar, but I was definitely not complaining. We rented a tent for the night at $8 CUC for the three of us, we were practically making money with that one it was so cheap.
We spent the day drinking the local beer and swimming in the pools before buying a bottle of rum from the bar to help us sleep in the tent – or that was the excuse anyway. As the sun went down, everyone seemed to disappear, and we were the only ones about, drinking rum as I watched an epic chess game between Argentina and Ben. (Yes, there is such a thing as an epic chess game).
As the game went on, flashes of light began to light up the sky somewhere in the distance. Someone taking photos perhaps, but they grew more frequent and brighter. I left the others to finish the game and went exploring in to the forest. As I entered a slight clearing in the trees, a huge lightning bolt lit up the sky, followed by two more in quick succession. Lightling like I’d never seen before, and far enough that it was inaudible.
I ran back to grab the others, and we watched the mesmerizing sight for quite some time, before deciding to go skinny dipping in the watering holes. By this point the lightning was illuminating the sky like a strobe light, and although it still wasn’t raining, the distant roar of thunder was beginning to be heard, as the lightening got increasingly vivid.
We found a perfect spot where the river had created a fairly deep pool, and we jumped in, swimming around and watching the night sky in complete awe. It was a night none of s will forget for a long time, even as we scampered out of the river after Argentina thought she saw a snake in the water. We crawled in to the tent with the thunder getting louder, and light rain beginning to fall gently on to our two man highly-unlikely waterproof tent.
We had no room, were likely to wake up wet with most, if not all of our bags wet, but none of that mattered as we lay awake in the tent. We really had reached our Cuba climax we agreed the next day, as we fell in and out of sleep on the ride back to Havana.
My flight was scheduled out of Cuba in two days time, but after hearing that the day after I was scheduled to leave would be a huge May Day celebration, I chanced my luck at amending my flight. Strangely, and entirely unexpected, Copa airlines let me change my flight for free over the phone, for no cost. Big up Copa!
We were up at 5AM on the first of May, for the walk down to the Plaza de la Revolucion. We had seen lots of signs advising all of the Cuban workers to go the square to celebrate socialism, so I was expecting quite a treat. It was the biggest collection of people I’d ever been involved in, and spirits were good, even for such an early time. People were dressed in all sorts of Cuban paraphernalia and I suspected some were still up from the previous night’s parties.
I’d heard that there was around a million or so that marched through the plaza that morning. It was impossible to guess how many, I jumped on to Ben’s back at one stage, and there were people as far as the eye can see. I just remember a feeling of relief to be out of it, once we had walked our way through the square, past the waiting hierarchy that apparently contained Raul Castro.
I must admit, I was expecting something a little more extreme. There were chants of Viva la Revolucion, Fidel, Raul, Socialism, Cuba and even at one point reeling off various countries which appeared to be an anti-USA list. Viva Iran was amongst one of the chants I heard, but it wasn’t the type of socialist propaganda screams, shouts and salutes which I had half expected. It was all a pretty jovial affair, and everyone seemed well behaved and enjoying being there in that moment.
The Cubans themselves, which I encountered, were an enigmatic bunch, some were extremely friendly, and wanting nothing in return but to talk. One even gave me half his pizza after a brief talk about football, while others were trying to hustle you for one thing or another, much alike anywhere else in the world.
There is too much about Cuba to fill just one blog entry, and while a lot of Cuba made no sense to me, there was one thing that I thought was a genius idea, and very logical. When Cubans are queuing for things, they often use something called último´. What happens is that when someone approaches a bus stop, or similar type of thing, they shout ultimo. The person who joined the crowd last would put their hand up to indicate that the new person is behind them in the queue, and then the process continues.
People will then stand around casually, not having to hold or jostle for their place in the queue and when the bus or whatever they are queuing for arrives and they form an orderly queue, only needing to seek out the person who was there before them. A genius idea and I pondered if it is only Cuba specific and how it first caught on? For some reason it provided us with huge amounts of entertainment, shouting ´ultimo´ in a shop with one other person.
I also managed to tick off the list playing football with locals, and in a great spot outside the Museo de la Revolucion (one of the worst museums I’ve ever been to, I went in knowing only a little of the revolution, and came out knowing even less). Unfortunately the ground was outrageously hot, and again, I didn’t have anything other then flip flops on. After a quick barefoot game, which was not a clever idea, my feet were a complete state. Half burnt, half blistered, I hobbled to a nearby bar to try and recover. It didn’t get any better after 4 beers and 2 hours later, and I ended up being out of walking action for a couple of days, hobbling around where I could.
The longer I stayed, the more unanswered questions I had. Does Cuba work? Is Socialism alive and well? Will it be a completely different country in 10 years? Too big a questions for me to even begin answering, but I do know I had an amazing trip and would definitely recommend.
As I sit in the airport, hastily scribbling away like an imperialist spy, I reflect on a captivating 10 days or so. On my last night, I was walking around for nearly half an hour just trying to buy a large bottle of water. This sort of thing will not be missed, and after nearly two weeks here I would be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to a bit more normality.
Nice one Cuba, you won’t be forgotten!