As I started writing this post it was my second last day in Havana. I’ve been reflecting so much more than usual over the past few days and I thought I would capture these thoughts whilst I am in the moment rather than trying to recollect them as I have done on recent blog posts.
The past 11 days have been extremely eventful and full of diverse and contrasting experiences. My first impressions of Cuba were nowhere near what I was expecting and I must admit I was having second thoughts about my decision to visit this country after only a few days here.
Driving out from the airport into downtown Havana reminded me so much of Suva (Fiji). The masses of old vehicles belching out thick exhaust fumes, bumpy roads in a state of disrepair and rundown buildings and casas (houses) nestled so closely together. Some of the Havana locals also look like Fijian natives and life here on first glance appeared quite simple but I guess that’s where the similarities quickly ended.
After travelling solo for almost 9 months, my world tour took on a new dimension in Cuba with the arrival of my sister (Mariam) later in the evening. We decided about 3 months ago to travel to Cuba together, and apart from hanging out in Abu Dhabi a few months back this was the first time I had travelled with my sister.
I thought I was ready for travel in Cuba. I knew that casa particulars were the mainstay of accommodation – where locals rent their bedrooms or even whole apartments. I was aware of the two forms of currency and what could be purchased with each. I had a rough itinerary prepared and was confident with my newly acquired Spanish language skills after finishing 4 weeks of intensive lessons in Mexico. I was prepared for two weeks with limited or zero internet and finally I was aware that my passion for food would have to take a back seat whilst in Cuba as it is not exactly featured in any food lovers guides.
My preparation for Cuba far outweighed anything I had undertaken for any previous country visited. Probably that in itself is where I may have went wrong as it was causing me stress and anxiety as I had become so accustomed to a spontaneous and ‘freestyle’ form of travel.
During my last week in Mexico I was bedridden with a severe case of food poisoning. For 3 days I was constantly vomiting and in the toilet as well as suffering from a fever and incapacitated without even the energy to walk. Fortunately I had recovered from this just in time for my trip to Cuba but my recovery was short-lived as I suffered a relapse of almost identical symptoms during my second day in Cuba. I remember trying to soldier on with my sister visiting the Museum of Fine Arts and walking around the streets of central Havana. I was so disappointed that I wasn’t able to even focus on the beautiful Cuban artwork and I also started to quickly lose patience with the masses of Cuban local men trying to sell me cigars on the street.
Being alone in Mexico when I was at my worst was really gruelling, so it was comforting to have my sister around whilst I was feeling so ill. After lying down for a few hours I started to feel somewhat better, so later that evening my sister and I decided to have dinner at a beautiful restaurant recommended by my hostel called San Cristobal. We were also joined by a great guy we met at my hostel Gavin whom was from Newcastle in the UK.
Dining at San Cristobal was one of the few highlights I had experienced in Cuba during my first few days. The food was surprisingly good and far exceeded our expectations. The decor and layout within the restaurant was full of charm and the most memorable aspect was the service we received from the staff, in particular our host Leonardo who had the most unique sense of humour as well as an addictive friendly persona. By day he was a psychologist and by night he worked in the restaurant. It was sad to learn that doctors in Cuba earn the equivalent to USD$30 per month and as he has a family to support he worked a second job simply to make ends meet.
I remember discussing over dinner how I was feeling frustrated that I wasn’t really able to connect with any locals in Cuba (apart from the staff at San Cristobal). Most of the locals I came across were more interested in selling me cigars or touting me taxi trips. I guess we were equally to blame for this experience as our first few days were more ‘sanitised’ due to exclusively eating at high-end restaurants and cafes as well as spending most of our time in tourist attractions like museums and walking in popular streets overrun with tourists and the accompanying local touts.
A further cause of dissatisfaction was the amounting cost of our ‘sanitised’ experience in Havana. The cafes and restaurants along with the frequent taxi trips to tourist attractions were quickly eating into the $10,000 Mexican pesos I converted to the CUC$750 in local ‘tourist’ currency (Cuban Convertible Peso). Despite my extensive planning I became unstuck as I tried to withdraw funds with my Australian debit/credit cards. The parent companies of both my Australian savings account (Citibank) and credit card (GE Money) are both American and due to the US restrictions both could not be used in Cuba. Fortunately my sister was better prepared than me and had more cash in reserve so the issue was averted.
One of the highlights of our time in Havana was hiring one of the restored old American vehicles and taking a drive out to the Casa of Ernest Hemingway. Despite never reading any of his books, I fell in love with the house in which he resided during his time in Cuba. The house has been left in the exact state in which he left it and you cannot help but feel a connection to him as you peek into the house from the outside. The layout was immaculate – so open and spacious and the decor oozing so much charm. You could also clearly see his neat and orderly character with every item in its place and so thoughtfully presented. Probably the highlight for me was seeing his beautiful wooden boat outside which I could immediately see was built for game fishing with a game chair in the rear. The staff member told me he had a passion for marlin fishing and there is a local tournament held annually in Cuba named in his honour. I was also told his love for fishing inspired ‘The Old Man and the Sea” which I am now very eager to read.
After 4 days in Havana we decided to leave for Vinales which is a small and quiet town towards the west of Cuba. We were looking forward to some much-needed peace and quiet in contrast to our time in Havana. I was looking forward to a few days just chilling out with some horseback riding, hiking and visiting tobacco plantations. I was also equally excited about staying in a casa and eating some home cooked food which I had read was some of the best in Cuba.
Shortly after arriving in Vinales I had a trivial disagreement with my sister about some minor aspect of the casa in which we were about to stay. My patience had been stretched by this stage of the trip due to being unwell and not having the experience I had hoped for. After spending the night doing my own thing I was surprised to learn the next morning that my sister had decided to leave Vinales and head back to Havana. I guess both my sister and I can be as equally as stubborn and I foolishly let her leave in a taxi.
I walked into the township of Vinales to learn that I had a wait of 4 hours for the bus to Havana. I literally just sat around the township waiting and feeling a little depressed about the situation I now found myself in. After arriving back in Havana later in the evening, I decided to call the hotel in which my sister had previously stayed to find her and resolve the situation. The staff at reception informed me that they saw my sister at the hotel earlier in the day but that she didn’t actually check back into the hotel but was just using the internet. With no other way to contact my sister I made the obvious conclusion that she had left Cuba to return home.
My situation took a turn for the worse as I tried to check back into my hostel (Rolando’s Backpackers) I was staying in Havana. The staff were so surprised to see me return after only being away one day and informed me that the hostel was unfortunately full. Fortunately I had formed a good relationship with Rolando and his mother that they kindly let me stay at their private dwelling for the evening until space was available in the hostel the following day.
I was also starting to run dangerously low on local currency by this stage with about CUC$50 remaining in my wallet as well as an emergency stash of US$200. With my sister unexpectedly gone I was not able to borrow any funds from her so after some careful budgeting I set aside $100 to cover my hostel costs and another $50 to cover my departure tax and taxi to the airport which left me with about $100 spending money for 7 days.
Even though I had another card I could try to use in an emergency I decided to challenge myself and see how long I could last with $100 local currency in my possession. I had never been in this position during my 9 months away hence felt it would be a good test.
The next morning I bumped into a friend I had made a few days back after walking my sister to the taxi rank. His name is Junior pronounced in Spanish as ‘h-unior’. Junior is a local bici-taxi driver and I met him on the night of his birthday during which we drank Ron (Cuban Rum) and spoke for around an hour about life in Cuba. He asked me why I was back from Vinales so soon and I explained my situation to him. He was genuinely sorry to learn of my situation and he then took me to a cadeca which is a government money exchange office where I converted half of my remaining CUC (tourist currency) into the CUP (local currency). 1 CUC = 24 CUP.
Junior then took me on a stroll in his bici-taxi around centro and gave me the locals guide to living on the streets of Havana. He introduced me to many of his favourite ‘peso’ shops where the locals eat and pay with pesos. I found local Cuban espresso style coffee for CUP$1 which is the equivalent of US$0.05 cents – which also was miles better than the café coffee I was drinking. As I started to become more comfortable with these stores I started eating pizza, fried chicken, sandwiches, ice cream and many local dishes for the equivalent of US0.50 cents per serve. Some were better than others and it definitely is a hit and miss affair however for the cost it really didn’t matter.
Junior also introduced me to his many friends around Havana; he was a mini celebrity in the neighbourhood around my hostel. After only a few days I had developed a decent network of local friends and would find myself getting stopped often on the street for a chat and offered some local food and coffee. This was also a great opportunity for me to improve on my Spanish which was quickly deteriorating in my first week due to not conversing with many locals.
Each morning my daily routine would consist of Cuban coffee and tortilla at my favourite peso stand and then having a chat with Junior and the crew of bici-taxi drivers. A few days ago another birthday was celebrated by one of the boys and I was invited to a fiesta he was having at his casa.
I invited a few friends from my hostel along to the party. I could tell they were a little nervous about coming and didn’t know what to expect. It was held in a tiny rundown 3rd floor apartment and the reggaeton could be heard pumping blocks away on the street. We had an absolute blast partying that night with not only young adults but toddlers as well. We also got to sample a home cooked stew which I have forgotten the name of and it definitely tasted better than it looked.
With my limited budget I started to do much more walking around town. The day after the party I hung out with Maria who is a criminal lawyer in Argentina. She spoke very little English so once again I was enjoying the opportunity to fine tune some more Spanish vocabulary. We walked all over town starting off in Revolution Square then to Vedado then along the Malecón where I then left Maria and proceeded into Old Havana or Havana Vieja.
I was really starting to enjoy my time in Havana. I was super excited after purchasing front row seats to the Spanish Ballet called ‘Carmen’. It is not typical ballet and based on the Spanish Flamenco dance. I had seen Flamenco in Seville a few months back and was impressed with the passion and costume hence my excitement when I heard it was showing in Havana.
Wandering the streets of Old Havana that day I stopped at a Paladar to grab a quick bite and something to drink. As I was sipping on my juice I couldn’t help but notice the most beautiful girl standing outside her gift shop smiling and talking to people. I watched her for about 5 minutes and as I finished my drink I walked in her direction on my way home. We made eye contact and I told her in Spanish how beautiful I thought she was and then she invited me inside her store.
We spoke for a few hours that afternoon where I learnt so much about Claudia and her life in Cuba. I also was fortunate to meet her family consisting of her mother, father and brother. I quickly discovered that Claudia had a special relationship with God and converted to Christianity about 2 years back. Having practically zero knowledge of Christianity myself I felt comfortable enough to ask her all the tough questions I could think of without any fear of offending her or otherwise.
It was starting to get late and as I got up to leave Claudia offered to lend me her bible to read. Whilst I was interested in asking her questions I didn’t really intend on reading the bible myself but as she insisted so strongly I politely accepted. To my surprise she then proceeded to invite me to the Sunday church service to which I was lost for words. I really enjoyed her company and thought it might be a great opportunity to meet more locals so I once again politely accepted.
The church service on Sunday morning wasnt exactly inside your average looking church. It was a makeshift church transformed from what appeared to be very small house or apartment. You could barely squeeze 20 people in there but I would guess there were at least 40. It was a very intimate service with bible readings, prayers and singing and throughout the entire service Claudia was doing an exceptional job translating every word into english. I felt very welcome as I was acknowledged by the pastor during his service and so warmly greeted by the people attending.
There were two uncomfortable moments for me during the entire service. Firstly, when the pastor began talking about how his coat had the spirit of god within it and following this statement he started throwing his jacket on the people attending the service. As soon as the jacket landed on a person they would break out into what I could only describe as a ‘fit’ and they would also start crying. The jacket was making its way around the room and I was really hoping it didn’t get thrown on me – luckily or unluckily it didn’t.
At the end of the service the pastor made a very important statement declaring that there were people in attendance whom were non-believers. He then asked for the non-believers to step forward where he would convert them to Christianity. Literally the ENTIRE room turned around and looked at me and Claudia whispered in my ear and said “now is your time to change”. I politely announced to the room that this was not the right time for me and fortunately another lady stepped forward and converted.
The next day I spent time with new friends from my hostel walking around town and showing them some of my favourite places and people. On my last night we all had dinner at San Cristobal where I could not have hoped for a better ending to my 12 days in Havana. It was the perfect way to reflect on my time, laugh as well as enjoy a glass of 12 year Santiago Ron with a Cohiba.
Whilst it wasn’t love at first sight, I did eventually fall in love with Cuba. I remember having many conversations with travellers discussing the rapid pace of change and how Cuba may not be the same in the years to come. Sure the architecture was beautiful, the old cars were unique and the rum and cigars were worth all the praise they receive – but if they were all to disappear tomorrow I would still love to visit Cuba once again.
By far and away it was the passion of the Cuban people that stood out for me and even though it was a challenge to truly connect it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my world tour thus far. Despite having very little in terms of material possessions and being almost shut off from the outside world, the Cuban people have such addictively beautiful personas and the ability to enjoy life regardless of the situation they find themselves in.
Cuba was such a reality check for me that there is more to life than the job you have, the car you drive or the house you live in. It was such an important reminder to live life in the present without the distractions of mainstream and social media. To have a real discussion with someone and give your undivided attention or to attend a performance and savour it only in your memory instead of seeing a swarm of smart phone screens in the audience.
I will always remember Cuba for these valuable insights and lasting memories.