I’ve wanted to come to Cuba for a good ten years now. I’m not sure what the allure has been, I think I just wanted to see how different things can be. The cigars (I don’t smoke), the rum (I’m not a fan), the cars (I’ve never been much of a revhead). Despite that, those 3 things were still an attraction plus of course the people and the music. Obviously, I was also inspired by Dirty Dancing 2 : Havana Nights.
Here are a few facts on Cuba:
Cuba has a literacy rate of 99.8%
Cuba has more doctors than the whole of the African Continent
The official average monthly salary is $25USD
Fidel Castro originally grew a beard because the US embargo cut off his supply of razors
Cuba is one of two countries where the sale of Coca Cola is prohibited (the other being North Korea) although a few bottles made in Mexico have been slipping in
JFK ordered about 1200 cigars hours before he enforced a trade embargo on Cuba
Sex change operations are covered under the national health care system
Our first night in Cuba was quite interesting to say the least. We arrived at Havana airport at approximately 6pm. Customs was relatively seamless however we then waited 2 hours for our bags. When our bags finally come out they were sharing the conveyor belt with some of the most interesting things I have seen on a baggage carousel. Car tyres, brake pads, I also saw a lady trying to ‘smuggle’ in about 50 sachets of Tang and 20 beach towels. I got bag searched after returning ‘positive’ (after about 30 minutes I understood it was for having multiple computer hard drives). I’m still not quite sure of the Spanish word for porn? Once outside we had to wait 40 minutes to change money behind a line of chain-smoking Frenchies as there are no atms at the airport. In the taxi on the way to our accommodation Piper quizzed me about the facilities of the nights accommodation. Does it have a trampoline, swimming pool on the roof, kid’s toys, home theatre? I told her we’d have to wait and see while secretly thinking it will be a bonus if we have hot water! A few days prior we had booked a ‘casa’ – a room in a family home, staying with the locals. We had read it was common for places to be double booked, ending in a trek around the city to stay with a friend/uncle/long lost relative.
Our taxi dropped us to the door of our casa where we were greeted with warm hugs by about 10 people speaking rapid Spanish with smiles on their faces. 15 minutes later we discovered our hosts Tony and Elena and were told in very limited English that they had no room and we would stay around the corner at Eduardo’s house. Who were we to argue?
On the walk to our new place, one of the family members Ezekiel grilled me about English slang. ‘What do these expressions mean: take it to the bank, call your bluff, pedal to the metal, cut the rug’. It was quite amusing. I’m glad he didn’t ask me to explain throw the leg over!
We met Eduardo and were shown to our room – with 2 single beds.. As usual, we would make it work (that means I would sleep in one and the three girls would cram into the other). It was an interesting first night.
Cuba is a country of contrasts and leaves you asking more questions than before you arrive. Here is what we discovered.
Money and The Internet
Cuba operates off a dual currency system. Locals use the CUP while tourists use CUC (the same rate as USD) although if you take USD to Cuba they charge you an additional 10% to exchange. The Internet is also quite unique. Basically, private houses or people don’t have internet access. You can buy a Wi-Fi card and use it at hotspots scattered very sparingly around the city (usually international hotels). You can normally tell where one is when you see a group of people all staring at their phones. Checking an email is fine but internet searching was a struggle.
Piper and Evie – It’s so good. Mum and dad actually talk to us now and don’t stare at their phones all day. Dad keeps looking at his, I think he’s hoping someone calls him. Pathetic.
You really have only two options. Relatively expensive state run hotels, or a room/ apartment in the house of a local, called a casa. Casas are basic but homely and the people we met were all welcoming and friendly. Most fixtures and fittings feel like they’re from the 1950s but have been well looked after. It’s like going to your grandma’s house. There are ornaments, crystal glasses, chandeliers. A nightmare with a 2 and a 5 year old! Pricing is standard $30CUC for 1 room, $60 for 2. The first night I played the tight ass card and we stayed in a single room, the rest of the time we double roomed it.
We ended up staying in 3 different Casas. Our first night was a little room in Eduardo’s house, a friendly guy who made us delicious Cuban coffee with 5 teaspoons of sugar. Then we stayed with Eisler and Leticia in an apartment with a sweet balcony looking out over one of the main pedestrian streets in Old Havana. By night we could lay back and listen to the music and imagine what it would be like sipping rum and dancing to one of the bands. The last part of our stay was in Yani and Ricardo’s house – a very happy, friendly couple who loved our girls. Their place had bright orange and aqua walls, a huge chandelier and an old rotary telephone still in use (the kids didn’t know how it worked!). Casas were fun to stay in but booking them was a massive problem. As internet access points are few and far between in Cuba trying to book your Casa of choice can prove difficult. We thought it would be a great idea to try and book something only 2 days before arriving. Stupider than a drunk goldfish. The key is to get direct contact details of a casa ahead of time rather than rely on a website that lists many. But that is easier said than done.
The girls loved staying with families and it gives you a better insight into Cuban life. Within 5 minutes of checking into Eislers and Leticia’s, Piper was sitting on their couch watching TV with their 6-year-old son Daniel. I think she’ll be ok making friends next year at school.
Piper and Evie – Seriously dad, 1 room! I know you don’t have a job but give us strength. It may be ok for you but every time you roll over I have nightmares the BFG is coming for me.
From 1959 until 2011 there has been a ban on imported cars. That means that many cars on the road are 1950s American classics, bought before the Revolution. Chevy Bel Airs, Ford Fairlanes, Cadillacs, Buicks and Pontiacs. We spent our days cruising the streets in these beautiful beasts. Every photo of Cuba you may have seen with these old cars rings true. They’re pink, aqua, yellow, purple with the majority in great condition. You can hire them as a taxi (simple point a to b) or to cruise for an hour or so (always with a driver). A highlight was when Reinier, the driver of our pink Chevy ’54, told us that his car was the one that drove Kim Kardashian and Kanye West around Havana. So much for a ban on American imports. Evie slept through a few rides while Piper could have been the youngest Kardashian cruising in the back. Awkward moment on our first trip when I waited a few seconds for the driver to pop the boot so I could put our luggage in. I then realised you can’t pop the boot on a 50’s car! You also don’t have seat belts or indicators.
Piper and Evie – Sure beats the soccer mum car we drive around in Australia. It gets embarrassing though when your dad waves to everyone on the street like he’s Che f***ing Guevara!
You don’t go to Cuba for the food, although it’s not as bad as I was expecting. It’s generally good for kids (if they like rice and beans). Endless mojitos make the food taste a little better as well. Each Cuban still receives food rations monthly. They are given approximately 3kgs of rice, some cooking oil, 30 bread rolls, 1/2 kg of of beans as well as some pasta, eggs and sugar. They will also receive some fish or chicken. There are state run restaurants or paladares (these are places where meals are cooked from the family kitchen and seat no more than 12). With a few changes over recent years there are now some private restaurants opening. The problem is you can’t really cook at home as a tourist. When you are on a 2 week holiday, I don’t think that matters as much. When your trip is 10 months like ours then constant eating out can wear thin. Piper is a bit of a homebody and if she could she would choose to eat at home 90% of the time. Our fanciest meal at home was a hard-to-source bread roll with vegemite and avocado. Evie is the opposite, often asking to go to a fancy restaurant. We also went to the largest ice cream establishment ever, Coppelia. It was strange. There was a line for locals who paid virtually nothing in CUP but if you were a gringo you were ushered in a different entrance and paid a bit more in CUC. It’s hard to describe but it’s a huge concrete structure with many different areas. It really shows how little they have. The ice cream isn’t fantastic and comes in 3 flavours – chocolate, strawberry and vanilla (I think they were scooping from a Neapolitan tub). It wasn’t great. It was sort of like being given the best TV ever only to be told you could only watch re runs of the Golden Girls.
Piper and Evie – The ice cream place was insane. Dad complained that there weren’t many flavours and then proceeded to order all 3. How do you say ‘you ate all the pies’ in Spanish?
What’s that? Souvenirs consist of Cuban cigars, maracas and Che Guevara tshirts (we bought 2 out of 3). I got talking to a local school teacher, Carlos about Cuban history. He took me to a bar with Che Guevara history and to the supermarket. Whilst there he asked if I could buy him some milk for his family. I readily agreed. He then ordered 4 large packets of powdered milk for a cost of $20CUC ($20USD). My tight arse clenched and I told him I could only buy 2 packets. He seemed happy enough, whilst probably swearing at me in Spanish under his breath. The supermarket was an experience. It wasn’t a supermarket as we know it. There was less to choose from than an early 90’s blue light disco. All goods are behind a glass showcase (so you can’t touch them) and there were very few things there. As everything is still state run there is one type of everything. E.g. one type of bottled water – (tagline still had Cuba’s number 1). No cereals, fresh milk, chocolates etc. Not a great place if your kids need lots of snacks. The girls can survive off a Vegemite roll so they were sweet. Day 3 however, a tragedy happened. Our Vegemite ran out. It was a sad day knowing there would be no more for the remainder of the trip. You have never seen a jar so clean, every smidgen was removed from every orifice of the jar. RIP.
Some things are very hard (or expensive) to get in Cuba like toiletries, kids toys or new clothes. We had done our research prior and arrived with 50 mini shampoos (that had been unknowingly donated by US hotels along our travels) as well as a bunch of baseballs and matchbox cars. The girls loved handing them out to kids they met in the streets. We also took over a bunch of the kids outgrown clothes which we left with a very grateful Yani to distribute amongst her family.
Piper and Evie – You know that happy little Vegemite song. Well that’s not us! Seriously WTF. You would have thought ma and pa could have managed things a little better there! Apparently not. Baseballs and matchbox cars for the kids? It’s 2016 not 1994.
What’s that saying? Economically poor but culturally rich. That definitely goes for Cuba. People don’t have many possessions but what they do have they look after. Homes are cleaner than a Mormons movie collection and they have beautiful fine china and glassware (from the 50’s). Cars are polished at every opportunity. There is a real sense of community in Cuba, everyone looking out for their friends and family. I visited Pepe and Rafaela (a casa we had been recommended) one day looking for somewhere to stay for a few nights (the current casa we were staying in had another booking). Rafaela didn’t have any space but she sat me down and then went through her phonebook (yes a real live phonebook) and called about 20 friends. Finally, Yani had room and we moved into her apartment the next day. Yani cooked the best breakfast in Cuba and despite her speaking zero English our girls loved her. They would rush to see her when she arrived in the morning to give her a cuddle.
Piper and Evie – We love Yani. Can’t understand a bloody word she says to us but I think she really likes us. I just keep saying Hola, every time she asks me a question. Soon I think she’ll get the message.
There is plenty to do in Havana. We had planned to visit Trinidad but ended up putting it in the too hard basket and thought we’d leave that for another day. Whilst in Havana we got to know every bit of Havana Vieja (Old Havana), visited the Museum of the Revolution, Camera Obscura, Old Havana Jail, drove the Malecon, spent a day at the beach and Mercado San Jose. We even managed to find a couple of kids playgrounds. There is a lot to be said for a playground in a Socialist country. The playground had a few ‘shared toys’ like bikes which no one owns you just take turns in using them. It’s one of the many things I love about our girls. A few weeks ago we were at Disneyworld, going on all sorts of rides. Here we were in Cuba on some of the most basic playground equipment, but their enthusiasm is still sky high. Havana by no means isn’t full of amazing sights. Most of the city is very run down, with dilapidated buildings and streets dug up. I don’t really think you go to Havana for the sights. Well, not sights in the traditional sense. The sights of the colour, the people, the music is the attraction here.
Piper and Evie – God love mum and dad. We must share bikes with other kids at this boring playground. They keep going on that it’s good for us to get by without many possessions. Give us our own scooter, iPad and Netflix and I’ll show them what’s good for us.
I’m writing this post from the jungle in Costa Rica (sounds more dramatic than it is). Just heard the news Fidel Castro has passed away, wondering how much the country will continue to change in the coming years.
Is Cuba the best place I’ve visited on the trip? No. Is it the most interesting? Probably. Hasta luego Cuba, till we meet again.
Ez took heaps of photos in Cuba. Check out her gallery here