(Reprinted from Houston Magazine 2015)
Imagine a place where most people don’t use the Internet; A country where ATMs don’t accept your credit cards; A destination where everyone uses money that’s different than the money you’re using. Welcome to Cuba! At this moment, I’m relaxing after a long day of walking around Havana and it’s amazing and frustrating, beautiful and not-so-beautiful all at the same time. Am I glad I came here? Very much so. My curiosity is finally sated and now I’ve experienced all the culture I could squeeze into a couple of days. There’s no place like it in the world.
My first WOW moment occurred as soon as I stepped out of the airport. A 1955 cherry red Chevy drove past the baggage claim followed by another perfectly restored vintage car. I’d heard that there were a lot of antique American cars preserved since Castro took over, but I was not prepared for the sheer number of incredible automobiles driving down the boulevard. Every other car seemed to be an amazing pastel painted wonder. As I took one photo after another, I soon discovered that I could get a little more personal with just about any of these cars by renting one for and hour or two. For $30/hr or less, you get chauffeured around like you are in a ZZ Top or Cars music video. There is not better way to see Havana than going “old school” in one of these fantastic driving machines.
Cuba is on the brink of being open to American travelers and it’s having growing pains. It’s easy to see that time practically stopped in the late 50’s when Fidel Castro took over the country. There’s hundreds of beautiful buildings that have been deserted for decades. There’s giant holes in some of the streets with displaced piles of asphalt next to them for no apparent reason. Many hotels in Old Havana were built in the early part of the 1900’s and have been maintained just enough to keep them in business. This is not an economy based on free enterprise but on watered-down communism that never quite worked in the Caribbean.
I arrived at The Plaza Hotel with a voucher showing that I had paid for my room with every important detail listed. The woman who worked at reception couldn’t find my name in her antique computer and insisted that it was my responsibility to either pay again or call the travel agent in Canada and straighten it out. It would be easy enough to fix such an issue if Internet had been a possibility in the hotel, but the only way to get online was to buy an internet scratch card at a seedy office in the back that lasted exactly 30 minutes, then find a place across the street where I might pick up a signal. Nothing is easy. ATMs do not accept American credit or debit cards and everything must be paid for by a special currency that was invented just for tourists, the CUC.
And there lies the irony. You might not like the system that epitomizes the novel Catch-22, but as soon as you walk outdoors, your frustration quickly turns into wonderment when you are approached by bicycle taxis, hear the rumba bands, see the beautiful cars. and feel the energy of a passionate people who are yearning to be free.
You could book a package trip and never ever realize that you’re visiting a country with two economies. If you stay in the tourist area, you’ll rarely have to wait in line for anything and you’ll never see the money that everyone else uses. It’s like the Truman show, where an entire economy and prices have been created just for you. Once you get to the outskirts of the city however, you realize that there is something odd going on.
Last night I had run out of C.U.C.s (the tourist currency) and found myself several miles from my hotel. It was hot and humid and I was delighted to find an ice cream place that I hoped I could convince to take a few of my dollars in return for some frozen refreshment. As I walked towards the door of the ice cream shop, I was stopped by a security policeman asking me my business. I joked with him about my ice cream purchase but the guard couldn’t have been more serious. He showed me the queue to get into the ice cream place (which wrapped around the block) and explained that this place was not for tourists and they would not accept the money I was using. He pointed to the other entrance that had no line and only took tourist currency. While I was happy to get an ice cream without waiting in line, I couldn’t help but wonder how someone could justify standing in a queue for two hours just to get a couple of scoops. Was it cheaper? Why weren’t tourists allowed? I later found out that Cubans aren’t even allowed to buy those little internet cards I had bought at the hotel. They’re only for tourists. No one has a webpage or is on Facebook because Internet is almost impossible to get.
Another strange experience occurred while changing money at a bank outside the tourist grid. Upon walking into the bank, I was met by a stern woman who had me sit in a line of at least 15 people who looked as if they had been sitting there for hours. When I pulled out my phone, I was immediately accosted by two threatening security guards who pointed to a list of rules on the wall including a “no telephone” rule. It was not a “please put your phone away” look, but more of a “would you like to rot in a Cuban prison?” look. I quickly left and went to a bank closer to the tourist area that had no line or employees that acted like Nurse Ratchett. Things were much smoother in the travel bubble.
Music is a big deal in Cuba and the music of choice is the rumba.Every place worth it’s weight in pesos has a Ricky Ricardo look-alike band playing music like there’s no manana. There’s a Cuban passion for pre-revolution music as well. You’ll hear lounge music and see nostalgic places with furniture, signs and even plates and silverware from the Golden Age of Cuba. When the conversation turns to politics (and it often does) many Cubans look around nervously and confess that things can’t get any worse than they are and they’re hoping that relations with the US improve their lot. It’s not uncommon for them to suddenly produce a complimentary cigar or pull out a rare bottle of aged rum if they like you. Those little pockets of nostalgic Cuba are the best places to be. This is country where the past was much better than the present.
Why should you go to Cuba? The cars and the cigars mainly. I can’t rave enough about the amazing cars. Drinking a mojito, smoking a “forbidden” cigar (I don’t even smoke, but had to here) and driving around in a 50’s Cadillac convertible with a Cuban hat on is worth the trip.The bureaucracy and risk lessens each day as Cuban-American relations warm. It’s not exactly legal for Americans to come here yet, but it’s not exactly illegal. Find a loophole and get here before everyone else in America does.