It’s been two years but I am back! Give me another 378 years and I may have enough of a readership to monetise this blog. But until then, let’s get into it!
For several years Cuba had been on the hit list. Amongst some of my closest friends Cuba was most well-known for an ill-fated attempt to get there at the end of 2016 to celebrate New Year’s Eve which ended up with us skiing in South Korea rather than relaxing on the beach in Cuba…long story.
However, while I was in Mexico, so close to Cuba, there was no doubt that I was going to make this trip happen. When my good friend Michelle let me know that she was up for it, I couldn’t have been more excited!
We were sitting in Bogota, Colombia, just before we were due to fly out to Mexico City when we booked our flights. Both of us were not exactly sure where we would be leading up to this little adventure but we were locked in to fly to Cuba for 10 days departing from Cancun and we were both PUMPED!
Michelle and I were adventuring in different parts of Mexico before this trip and both made our way to a little motel near Cancun airport the day before our flight. It just so happened that we were meeting on Michelle’s birthday, so after a happy reunion and mini celebration over some quesadilla’s at a nearby takeaway spot, it was off to bed to be ready for our early morning flight.
Now, both Michelle and I have travelled quite a lot, however, it really did not seem that way at the start of this trip. We were up early, jumped in a taxi and were at the airport at about 5:30am. There is a lot of information out there about Cuba and one thing that consistently came up in our research was to take US dollars with you. In an economy that has two currencies (one for locals and one for tourists), limited internet access and no capacity for card transactions, having US dollars with you as a fail-safe was a good, and most likely necessary, thing to do.
So there we were, at the airport, packed and ready to go…and everything is closed. No ATM’s dispensing USD, barely anyone around and our flight departing in 2 hours. We spoke to a taxi driver who said for $20 USD he could take us to the domestic airport where they have ATM’s that dispense USD. We thought that we had to try, plus there was no way that this guy was trying to scam us…
We get to the domestic airport and what do you know, everything was closed with no ATM’s working. I always thought that having an Automatic Teller Machine would mean that you could just leave it on but we were in Mexico, so some rules go out the window!
We were taken back to the international terminal, paid our taxi driver for effectively an early morning joyride from the international to domestic terminal (and back again) then decided we would just have to get on that plane.
I also realised that I lost an immigration card I received upon arrival in Mexico and needed this for departure. This cost another $30USD to get, but after figuring this out, we got on the flight and crossed our fingers.
Once we arrived in Havana we were greeted by a bunch of female customs officers wearing fishnet stockings and short skirts. A bizarre choice for customs officials, however, we proceeded through security and into the arrivals hall to meet up with Jose, our man in Cuba who we were staying with.
After a few minutes waiting at the arrivals terminal it became apparent that Jose was nowhere to be found…
We walked all over the place, walked outside, went back inside, spoke to random people asking if they were here to pick up someone by the name of Michelle. Nothing. We also had no money and no address. Only a phone number and address for Jose, who we thought had just done a no show and our phones were not working.
After sitting outside for a while wondering what we were going to do next, we decided to try and get some cash out of an ATM. Michelle tried her card, no cash. I tried my card, no cash. We were in a spot of bother.
I remembered that I had a backup credit card with $200AUD on it for an emergency. With no cash in a foreign country for potentially 10 days…it was starting to feel like this was an emergency. I put the card in, entered my pin number and….BOOM, $150USD. Thankyou 28degrees mastercard! (I have also forgotten my pin to access this account online…should sort that one out!)
After feeling better about having a little cash on us we decided to try and find someone to call Jose. We walked over to the information booth in the arrivals hall and in my broken Spanish I explained that we were hoping to use the phone and call Jose. The assistant at the desk called Jose’s number and there was no response. We decided that we would just have to reconvene at our previous thinking spot outside the terminal and figure out what to do next. As we were walking out the door the gentleman who had just called Jose yelled out to us saying that he managed to get through and to stay where we were. Jose was on the way!
Once we met Jose we immediately knew he was a legend. He had a fantastic warmth about him and we were instantly friends. He then explained that our flight had come into a different terminal to what was listed on our tickets hence the confusion. He then blamed us for this and said that we should have been more prepared. We weren’t sure how we caused the change in terminal for our flight but did agree we should have been more prepared. We then began our tour of Havana.
We dropped our stuff off at Jose’s place and got into a beautiful pink 1960’s Chevorolet to cruise around the city. We stopped off at a cuban cigar factory and learnt all about how cigars were made. It was incredible to hear that people who work in these factories only earn $40USD a month, while making 90 cigars a day. Each cigar is sold for $12 each…hardly seemed fair! Our tour guide was definitely quirky, completely inappropriate and absolutely hilarious. It was also kind of awesome to see several women rolling cigars while also smoking cigarettes.
Our tour then continued around Havana, stopping into Ernst Hemmingway’s house and getting soaked in a tropical storm before dinner at a local restaurant and chilling out on “Malecon” (the promenade along the water) where a couple of guys serenaded us with a song. Day 1 was an eventful one and there was plenty more to come over the next 10 days!
Our plan for the week-and-a-half in Cuba involved visiting several places around the island. A day in the beach town of Veradero, 3 days in Trinidad, a couple back in Havana with Jose and then a night in Vinales, before signing-off with one night back in Havana before heading back to Mexico. All our movements were organised by Jose and noted down on one piece of paper, with contacts in each place for us to link up with. We had no working phones and pretty much no access to wifi, we did it old school, asking to use landlines and requesting favours of people to make calls for us should we need. It was awesome!!
Also, something that I didn’t really comprehend before we arrived in Cuba was the time it takes to get from one place to another on busses. It was not uncommon for us to be on busses for hours and hours at a time, spending the majority of the day travelling. This sounds a bit grim but was actually an adventure in itself, a great way to see the countryside and often we would take a break at random truck stops discovering some funny things…for example, there is an Australia in Cuba…
This trip was full of amazing moments. Many of them were due to staying in casa’s, which were exactly what you think casa’s would be. “Mi casa, su casa” perfectly describes Cuba. We would effectively stay in people’s houses and they would become our pseudo host/tour guide/family for the time we were there. Their kindness and openness was something to behold and none were more amazing than Jose’s family!
When it came to the country itself, I particularly loved walking around old Havana. The buildings are beautiful and the 1950s and 1960s cars in the city are just like you would expect. Throw in a mojito bar historically frequented by Ernest Hemingway and Cuban salsa music around many a corner… what more could you ask for?
Not everything was perfect though, we were in a 1950’s Chevrolet to get us from Havana to Veradero beach. It was initially awesome but after 2 hours of bouncing around the back of a car with 1950’s suspension we were happy to get out and not continually smell gasoline from a very old engine. However, once we settled into our casa stay we were shocked to see a Beatles bar in town and enjoyed a night of mojitos and rum and cokes while listening to some quintessentially non-cuban music!
Cuba is naturally beautiful! Seriously stunning, which makes sense considering it is the largest island in the Caribbean and super tropical. Rainforests, beaches, caves, waterfalls, you name it, it is there. Really something to behold. We even managed to party in a nightclub in a cave in Trinidad. A very cool, very surreal experience!
Rum and cigars…you cannot escape them. It feels so engrained in the Cuban psyche that it would have been criminal to not sit with a local farmer in Vinales and smoke a cigar with him. Which I did and it was great! He also showed this former asthmatic the trick of dipping the tip of the cigar in some honey to add some sweet flavour to the smoke. As we were leaving his farm his elderly father even gave me a couple of home rolled cigars from his pocket, for no particular reason, it guess it just felt right to him. These ended up being smoked at a wedding I effectively crashed in the USA, but that is another story.
Another thing that is impossible to escape in Cuba is Fidel Castro. This is not a political blog and I know that some love him, while some hate him but either way he was a force to be reckoned with. Murals of him, Che Guevara and patriotic messages are everywhere in the country. It definitely seemed like his influence will be felt for many years to come even after his passing in 2016.
Irrespective of ideologies though, in every country there are great people and the Cuban people were awesome even through their struggles. Speaking to our taxi driver (who was really just a friend of Jose’s) it was sad to hear about what he called the “inverse economy” where someone working in the tourism industry gets $30 USD for taking us to the airport while a doctor earns less than $60 USD a month. It made me think that if you are a doctor in Cuba you really must have a calling to this vocation. Our driver told us how after a doctor performed lifesaving heart surgery on his father he would drop pasta and rice around to the doctor’s place to help him out. It was such a strange thing for me to hear!
On a lighter note, just like any country where you don’t speak the language you are bound to run into some funny moments. Jose taught us a few words in classic Cuban Spanish but our favourite was “pinga” which roughly translates to “dick”. However, with Jose wanting to improve his English things got even better. At one point Jose jokingly told us to “shut the fuck up” and “fuck off” at the same time which came out as “shut the fuck off”. To this day, Michelle and I still tell each other to do!
These and many more things happened in our time over in Cuba, I know I should have written this much sooner rather than let the memories fade but suffice to say, it was a special trip with a great friend and Michelle and I still chat about our Cuban experience!
The reflective stuff
I loved how people were not constantly on mobile phones. Many people we met didn’t have a mobile phone, and if they did, they were not smart phones so could just call and text. That can get pretty old quickly! The result of this though was there seemed to be a strong sense of community wherever we went. People were open, welcoming and most importantly, present. I know no society is perfect but it felt to me that this aspect of Cuba, from what I perceived, was something we could learn from.
I really felt a part of things one night while walking in Havana. We had had a big day and Michelle was organising a few things using the limited internet we had at Jose’s place. I took the opportunity to go for a walk. Nothing huge, just stretching the legs.
While I was walking I realised how crazy it was that a guy from Sydney was walking around old Havana, with no connection to the outside world, completely isolated and I loved it! (This is especially stark for me to think about as I write this post two years after being in Cuba during the global Corona virus pandemic) I can distinctly remember having this feeling another time while walking around one night in St Petersburg, Russia. What the hell was I doing there as well!
Anyway, while walking back to Jose’s place I passed a guy standing at his window just watching people go by. I have been told, with my features, I could pass as either, Mediterranean, South American or Middle Eastern. Which has its pros and cons. The con in Spanish speaking countries mainly involving people looking at me and wondering “you look like you are from here but when you speak in Spanish I know you are not!”. However, Jose told me that a very Cuban thing to hear is “Que bola”. This is like saying “Como estas?”, asking “How are you?” in Cuban Spanish. As I was walking past a house, a gentleman was standing at the window, leaning on the sill, surveying the street, when he looked at me and said “Hola, que bola?” without hesitation I responded with a “Muy bien gracias”, he then nodded at me as I continued on my way. It was such a small thing but I did feel part of Havana in that moment. Oddly isolated and connected at the same time. It felt that this could only happen in a slightly technologically disconnected world. It was something special.
What a great trip with a great friend! Gracias Cuba!