The Cuban Missile Crisis happened a long time before I was born. I remember calling my sister a “commie” once and my mom saying, “Don’t say that!” and I didn’t know what the hell it even meant. Clearly, though, it had made it into my 11 year old psyche that whatever a commie was, it was bad.
Growing up, the only things I knew about Cuba were pretty much Gloria Estefan, Pedro Zamora, and Elián González. These stuck in my mind because they were pop culture references, not because I felt personally affected by them or because I sided with any particular political movement. And yet, I still “knew” that there was something about Cuba that was bad; that in the grand scheme of countries in the world vs. the United States, Cuba was somewhere in that group of “enemies.”
Oh, I also knew that Cuban cigars were a thing that people were really into for some reason, but didn’t understand why (and I still don’t, cigars are naaaaaasty).
Anyway, to be clear, I didn’t “know” anything at all when I was 11 (and, let’s be honest, I still don’t). Like most American’s my age, I grew up not really understanding why we were supposed to hate or fear Cuba. Sure, I had a faint idea that they had a dictator, but it was the 90s and I, a kid growing up way out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, was (for some reason) too busy having nightmares about Saddam Hussein (really though, one time I dreamed that he flooded the earth and my family was in a shipping container hooked up to a crane hoping to be rescued. Kids are weird.), so…priorities, right? I knew people were fleeing Cuba on homemade rafts, but I didn’t know why.
This is not a political post. I’m not here to convince you one way or the other about any of the issues surrounding US – Cuba relations. One of the reasons that I travel is because everything about a place (both the good and the bad) just makes a lot more sense if you see it for yourself, as opposed to getting your information from secondhand accounts of politicians, news networks, or activist groups (or blogs!). I just want to tell you about my experience…because it was kiiiiinda fucking weird.
My friend and I headed to Cuba in April 2017; a short trip, just Wednesday to Sunday. We were leaving out of Fort Lauderdale and were told to arrive at the airport three hours before departure…for a 45-minute flight. In the 2 hour and something minute line we ended up standing in, a Cuban woman behind me asked if we’d ever been to Cuba before. I told her we hadn’t and she got really animated and said, “Oh! You guys are going to love it, it’s beautiful, and the people are so great! You’ll have so much fun!…
“…but be careful! Cuba is wonderful, but beeee careful!”
I can’t even express the weird tone of her voice when she said it. She didn’t lower her voice or change her tone at all through the whole interaction; it was the most upbeat warning I’ve ever received in my life.
To be honest, we were already a little freaked out about going to Cuba, and this didn’t help. We were two American girls on our own, going to a place we’d been raised to be wary of, and where our American credit cards and smartphones would be useless.
Okay okay, they technically have internet, but it’s a whole thing. I think we were actually helped by the fact that we didn’t intend to even try the internet there because knowing we’d be without, we did all of our planning beforehand and knew to download apps like MAPS.ME so we could easily navigate without a signal. You should have seen the look on the Australian guy’s face at the airport when he asked us if we knew how to get on the airport’s wifi…ummmm…yeah, about that…
Kissing the Tarmac
Speaking of the airport, that in itself was a major ordeal. Not the actual airport though – getting through customs and everything else was actually much smoother than I even expected – but, rather, getting too it. To begin with, there was a LOT of turbulence, which is just not at all ideal for my raging aviophobia. A Cuban guy sitting next to me saw that I was clearly in distress and was so kind in trying to talk to me about random stuff to get my mind off of it (unfortunately, all I really wanted to do was put some calming music on in my earphones and zone out, but I appreciate his kindness either way). He told me that his dad was sick and he was going home, bringing medicine and other items to help out. He spoke jovially about Cuba and how nice the people are and how much fun we were going to have on our trip, but he’d lower his voice when mentioning that he was bringing medicine that they didn’t have in Cuba, or that when his dad has to go to the hospital they have to bring all their own stuff from home, from bed sheets, to food, to toilet paper.
And bringing stuff the Cuban people were; offloading from the plane we saw numerous big screen TVs, countless large boxes from Home Depot, and all other manner of random home goods coming down the conveyor belt.
But anyway, back to the scary plane. So it’s turbulent, I’m at my wit’s end with panic, Cuban guy is yakking away, but we’re almost there, I can see the runway and it’s getting closer every second. But we’re still coming in so fast. And then BOOM (Okay not “boom” exactly, nothing exploded anyway). We hit the runway, bounced ALLLLL the way back up into the air, and then a huge gust must have come up just at the right moment because we tilted and the right wing, right next to where I was sitting, came down so very very close to the runway. Normally, all of this panic is just in my own head and I’m significantly calmed by looking around and seeing that everyone else is not freaking out. But this time? I screamed, literally in slow motion:
Sure that my life was about to end, I freaked out even more when I realized everyone else was screaming, too. Ugh. It turns out the runway at the Havana airport is riddled with potholes, which is why we bounced so dramatically; we caught a tire on one of them. So. Much. Fun.
But we recovered. Obviously. I cried, I clapped furiously (along with everyone else, it would be weird if I was the only one, right?), I needed a strong drink. Why weren’t we moving?
“Ah, hi folks, we’re just waiting here for a minute until we get a gate assignment, should have you outta here in 5 to 10 minutes.”
— Captain Whatshisname
Okay, I’m cool, as long as we’re not flyin’, I’m not dyin’.
Ahhhh…hi folks. Sooooo…the airport is, uh, closed?…and no one will tell us why. Sooooo…uh, we’ll update you when we know something.”
— A slightly more concerned Captain Whatshisname
Well that’s fucking ominous.
And then, not a word, for about 20 minutes. I craned my neck, looking out the window for signs of something crazy happening: people running down the runway with guns, burning buildings, choppers circling the airport, all your general signs of revolution. But there was nothing. The guy next to me said not to worry, that this was just how Cuba is. He even polled the row behind us at which point a woman exclaimed, “This is Cuba, it’s normal, don’t worry!”
“You know, when I was younger I studied in the Soviet Union. One time there was like a civil war all of the sudden and we had to get all our stuff and run to the plane to get out of there…I hope that’s not what’s happening.”
— Previously Optimistic Cuban Guy
Spoiler alert, we eventually made it off the plane. But never were given an answer as to what had happened. When we walked out of the jet bridge there were literally hundreds of people standing around doing whatever, so we’re 99.9% sure it wasn’t ever actually closed. Miscommunication? Late April Fool’s prank? We’ll never know.
We exchanged our money and got ourselves a taxi – A soviet era Lada 2101 with, of course, no ac. Yes, it’s very hot in Cuba, but the real bastard of not having ac there is having to have your windows down, forcing you to ingest the black smog that spews out of all the other cars around you. One time on the trip we went through a long tunnel and I thought I was going to actually die of smoke inhalation. The price of Cuba’s famous classic cars is some of the worst air quality I’ve ever experienced. And there aren’t even that many cars on the road.
Dark Alleys & Hot Casas
Our homestay or casa particular, as they call it in Cuba, was modest, clean, had ac, and was run by a lovely woman who spoke no English. We were close to everything, but still a little ways from La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), which was nice, but also a little creepy at night. After returning home we laughed at the fact that in America we never would have felt safe walking around a neighborhood that looked the way this one did at night.
Though the room may have been modest, the view from the rooftop was really great. We reserved this through Airbnb but there were also many places that we could have just walked in and gotten a room at, which is the way it was done prior to the advent of Airbnb’s arrival in Cuba in 2015. Interesting side not on that: according to Airbnb, over the past two years 560,000 customers have spent $40 million on rental properties in Cuba. In their report, the company stated that, “In 2017 so far, Cuba has been the 9th most popular destination country on Airbnb for US travelers, more than Australia, Germany, the Netherlands or Thailand.” Another point of interest is that the report also shows that 58% of Airbnb hosts in Cuba are women and that on average Cuban hosts earn $2700 per year from Airbnb, which is in huge contrast to the average wage most Cubans earn of $30 per month. This sure sounds like empowering people through capitalism…uh, isn’t that what America has always wanted? Hmm. Anyway…
The street beside ours looked like it had recently been through a war, with only shells of buildings left standing. In fact, a lot of streets looked like that. It is estimated that 3.1 structures crumble and fall in Havana, EVERYDAY. All you have to do is google “Havana building collapse” to find countless articles about people being killed or trapped by these structures, and it’s sad really. Seeing the old buildings, you can imagine how glamorous they must have been in their heyday, but you can also imagine how horrible life must be for those still living in them today. Al Jazeera made a great documentary short, Cuba for Sale, about the whole situation. If you’re heading to Cuba, I highly recommend viewing it.
Aside from crumbling buildings and pothole laden runways, Cuba also has a real problem with rolling black outs. One night I woke up abruptly at around 3am. When I woke up again, at 7 or 8, I realized that the power must have gone out several hours earlier as it had gotten really hot and muggy in our room, and the ac shutting off must have been what woke me up earlier. No power? No problem, we were going out anyway! Only later did it occur to us that once the sun went down, no power would mean finding our way back to the apartment in the pitch black night and then navigating up 7 flights of stairs in total darkness (yes, SEVEN, and no elevator – welcome to Cuba)! So we worried about that, but luckily the power came back on several hours later. Knowing what I know now, though, I highly recommend bringing a flashlight.
The next morning we ventured out for breakfast, arrived, ordered food, and then received our meals right before the power went out again, this time on the other side of the city. The restaurant’s proprietor was PISSED. What followed was a rant about the impossibility of doing business in a place where the power can’t be counted on and the meager results that come from protesting the situation. I was shocked.
I didn’t think that Cubans were allowed to rant openly about their frustrations. I certainly didn’t think they were allowed to protest in any way, shape, or form.
Somehow, I’d been led to believe that Cuba was much like North Korea in that if you were a tourist there, you shouldn’t expect to have any real interactions with locals because they are monitored by the police, or the government, or some shadowy organization that exists solely to eavesdrop on conversations between tourists and Cubans. But people were talking; they were talking about their frustrations with their system and with their lack of basic supplies. It was, honestly, a little uncomfortable. On one hand, I am and have always been, “for the people” (whoever the people are), but on the other hand, mama didn’t raise no fool, and I know better than to engage in politically inflammatory conversations whilst abroad. So, we finished our breakfast, left an extra large tip, and moved on.
I just have to say, this is the prime reason I don’t understand the current push by the American government to get American tourists to Cuba back onto tour buses, and controlled trip packages. I highly doubt that restaurateur would have felt so free to rant if their patrons were there as part of a group tour. I imagine honest people-to-people experiences are far and few between when you’re being shuttled around to pre-approved places. Don’t we want Cubans to be able to interact freely with Americans?
In the meantime, Europeans, Canadians, and pretty much all other non-Americans, have been visiting Cuba as if it were just any other island in Caribbean for ages, staying at beach resorts, attending weddings, and learning to shake it at Salsa schools. Prior to Obama’s relaxing of tourism regulations, I thought Americans who went anyway, by way of Canada or Mexico, were crazy; I thought the possibility of ending up in jail in a place with no diplomatic relations with America (and a lot of animosity) was just too over the top. Well, it turns out Cuba is just full of Europeans going about their business and having a jolly old time. I know, so scary, right?
In a cafe one day, chatting with two guys from Belgium who were spending three weeks traveling all around Cuba, one laughingly said that they’d heard people say that,
“Americans are all in a rush to get to Cuba before the Americans get there and ruin it”
Har har har. But they also wanted to get there before we ruined it, which has been a driving force in increasing tourism from all over the globe. They were surprised to hear that we didn’t speak Spanish though, since it’s so prevalent in the US and given that we were just a short hop away from so many Spanish speaking destinations. The Belgians each spoke three languages, and demonstrated as much. Jeeeeez, Belgium, we get it, you’re great.
There’s another preconceived notion I had about Cuba: I was led to believe that their healthcare system was amazing, and that all Cubans had access to free and fabulous healthcare, while us dumb ass Americans were paying through the nose for treatment.
In 2007 Michael Moore’s film Sicko was released, with great fanfare on the left (who, at that time, were 1 and 1/2 terms deep into a Bush Jr. presidency, so…allowances). The film has its merits, detailing the pitfalls of American healthcare, and covering issues that many of us can relate to. The last 10 minutes or so of the movie, however, are dedicated to how wonderful Cuba’s healthcare system is and he demonstrate’s this by taking a group of down on their luck Americans there for treatment and medication. Regarding Cuba’s healthcare system, he solemnly states that:
“Their only sin when it comes to healthcare, seems to be that they don’t do it for a profit”
— Michael Moore
Um, wait, is this the same healthcare system the guy on the plane was talking about? The one where they have to bring their own bed sheets, food, and toilet paper? The same one that runs out of these hospitals I’m seeing that have a distinct lack of glass covering their windows. Um…Michael? I do believe you have some splainin’ to do.
We met a Canadian guy on our first day in Havana who alternates between living in Cuba and Vietnam for 3 months during the winter each year. He said he’d been to a dentist in Vietnam and had some great work done and at a very low cost, so when he got a tooth ache in Cuba he thought the same would be true. What he went on to describe was nothing short of a dental nightmare, complete with unsanitary conditions and implements. He said the experience was so bad that if he had another dental problem during his time there, he would fly all the way home to Canada for treatment.
This seemed a lot more true to the environment that I personally experienced than Moore’s glowing commentary and visuals of squeaky clean modern hospitals. That’s not to say there might not be some really nice hospitals and modern medical equipment in Cuba, there might be, I don’t know, but clearly if so, not all Cubans have equal access to them, and Michael Moore’s group surely got access to the best of the best and portrayed it as if it was the standard. So yeah, don’t plan your trip to Cuba thinking you’ll swing by the dentist to get a cut rate root canal or some cheap prescriptions; this is not Mexico.
One thing that is immediately obvious in Cuba is a lack of things to buy. Sure, there are tons of little trinket shops on Obispo street, but there’s something a bit strange about them. One very large store, for instance, sold only about 15 unique items, but in vast multiples, some behind locked glass cases as if precious and expensive, while others (of the same product) were out in piles on shelves or stacked against the walls.
Away from Obispo though, there are some interesting shops and galleries to purchase original art and jewelry. So I recommend heading toward the area near the ferry terminal to visit Casa de Carmen Montilla, an art gallery with the most amazing court yard out back (you will hate your own backyard after seeing it) and then strolling along the area just to the north to find a great open air antique market near Plaza de Armas. Then, take a left on Obispo to wade through the throngs of tourists eating ice cream and standing in impossibly long lines to exchange money, and finally head north on San Ignacio to get to Piscolabis, a unique and independently owned store with super cute stuff and a coffee shop on site. From there, if you’ve made a reservation ahead of time, you might carry on to Habana 61, an excellent and independently owned restaurant. Check out Restaurant Regrets for more on our restaurant experiences in Havana!
A note on shopping: the brightly lit and squeaky clean convenience stores and supermarkets you’re probably used to at home don’t exist at all in Havana, which can be a nice feature (I guess?) for those who want to really really unplug from all modern conveniences. But, a word to the wise, those little snacks they hand out on your flight over? Hang on to those, you might need ’em as there is nowhere to grab snacks for midnight munchies. And toilet paper…definitely bring a private stash or you’re gonna be sorry.
When all was said and done we had spent $450 each for 5 days in Havana, including flights, our homestay, and everything else. Money very well spent. I will note, however, that I’ve never been as ready to go home from a place as I was on our 5th and final day in Havana. It may be different if you’re heading to the resort towns, or road tripping all over Cuba like the Belgians were but, for Havana alone, 5 days was plenty. I can’t really explain it but Havana is a lot. A lot of tourists, a lot of dirt and smog in the air, a lot of unusual situations to deal with; and it all just takes it out of you.
All the while that we were in Havana, in the back of our minds, we were anxious about the flight back out, given our experience coming in. We got to the airport with ample time to spare, with it taking all of 15 minutes to get through ticketing and passport control and through to our gate. So, what does one do when anxiously awaiting a potentially scary flight at 8am in Havana? Well, if you’re us, you go to the first food stand you see and fill your hands with carajillo ($1 shots of coffee mixed with rum) and your backpack with cans of cristal (a popular Cuban beer, also about $1), take a seat, and get to work.
Finally, on the plane and sufficiently numbed enough to give it a go, we sat quietly, hoping for the best. As we slowly ambled down the runway, I felt every. single. pothole. My anxiety was high and I was hating life but, what was I going to do? Stay in Cuba forever? What if I got a tooth ache?
Are you an American who’s been to Cuba? A non-American who doesn’t understand WTF our problem is with our Island neighbor? A Cuban, in Cuba (if so, sorry, I hope allllll of this doesn’t offend you)? Whoever you are, add to the conversation by leaving a comment below! I’m sure you’ve got some quirky Cuba stories and I’d love to hear ’em! Let’s talk Cuba, not politics.