Saturday, December 22, 2018


December 22, 2018
Havana, Cuba

Our first photo of pre-1959 American "classic" cars!  Many, many more to follow... 
After years of exploring the possibility, we finally made it to Cuba! Why Cuba? Why now?

The "why Cuba" question is easy. Because it’s there, and where don’t we want to go? But really, also because it’s so unique. A Caribbean island, just about 100 miles from Florida, with a longstanding aura of mystery and all but forbidden for the American traveler. The buildings and cars of Havana, that glamorous American playground of the 1940’s and 1950’s, which can now be seen as archaeological relics that happen to be still in use, crumbling and patched together to bleed every last drop of use from them. Then there’s the Cuban culture. The music, dancing, rum, cigars, coffee, guayaberas.  And the chance to see a socialist dictatorship in person. Of course, visiting a Caribbean island in December is always appealing for the weather alone, but there are easier places to go for a beach vacation.

So why go now? Because Christmas and New Year’s Day both fall on Tuesdays and both Monday and Tuesday of each week were business holidays at Delicato. So by taking 3 vacation days, we had 11 days in a row off. Even though we’re feeling a little broke paying for both our land and rent, there’s no way that people as infected by the travel bug as we are could pass up this opportunity.

But as of Thanksgiving, we didn’t yet have any plans. Initially, we kicked around the idea of going to South America or Central America, both places we’d never been before. Ecuador, Columbia, Nicaragua all floated to the top of the list. It’s a difficult time to travel though, and flights looked arduous and/or expensive, so we were having a difficult time making up our minds.

At the same time, our friends Bridgette and Greg, along with their new spouses, were hosting a fundraiser for their teenage son, whose baseball team is going to Cuba in March. We were looking forward to seeing them, and also to their Cuban-themed party. When we heard, on Saturday November 24th, that they were going to have to cancel due to a low RSVP count, we were disappointed to miss out on seeing our old friends, and also to miss out on the Cuban party. That might have been just the inspiration we needed to finally make a decision on our holiday travel destination. (Remember, this is the couple who decided to travel to Korea over Christmas after enjoying a single meal at a Korean restaurant near our home in Oakland in December of 2012.) By the next day, we had decided we’d be going to Cuba, and spent the day researching how to do it, what tour to take, and picking out flights. By Monday we were booked.

In researching the how-to-travel-to-Cuba-as-an-American question, we decided that the most straightforward way to go would be via guided group tour. We’ve never traveled on a tour before, so this would be new for us. Typically, we are fiercely independent travelers, so were a little nervous about having an agenda, as well as being stuck with the same group of people all of the time. We did discover it is still possible to travel without a tour. But it does mean you have to put together your own comprehensive itinerary that complies with all of the travel regulations, document your trip, make sure you’re not spending money at businesses linked to the military (like many of the hotels), and keep all of your receipts. If we had more time to plan, we probably would’ve chosen this route. It also would’ve helped to have time to brush up on our Spanish, since it’s hard to interact with Cubans outside of the tourism industry without habla-ing the ole’ Español, including staying in Cuban homes.

Now we were booked - a one week trip through Cuba Explorer, on their Western Cuba Culture tour. It seemed like a nice mix of activities and locales, which included exploring Havana (of course), visiting a farm, an “eco-community”, a mountain-jungle excursion, and visits to the historic cities of Cienfuegos and Trinidad. 

Although there have been direct flights to Cuba from the U.S. for a couple of years now, we ended up on Avianca Airlines flying through San Salvador, El Salvador, since it was way cheaper and took about the same amount of time. The reason it was about the same amount of time was due to the scant layovers of just 50 minutes. Seeing how we were flying the Saturday before Christmas, that connection had us a bit nervous. Our red-eye out of SFO was supposed to leave Friday night at 12:30am, but ended up leaving nearly an hour-and-a-half late. So while we were enjoying seeing the Salvadoran landscape on our early morning descent, we were skeptical that we’d make our next leg to Havana. As soon as we deplaned, we found ourselves running the length of the airport to our gate, where it seemed they were holding the plane for the very few travelers connecting to Cuba. Their food may be terrible, but we’re grateful to Avianca for making sure we made our flight!

Enough intro. Finally, Havana...

Our mid-day arrival was smooth enough, with no questions from Cuban immigration, though we were disappointed that we didn't seem to get stamps in our passports (we later would learn we'd get stamped on the way out). Our friendly driver was there, complete with large "Scott & Caroline" sign, and drove us the 30 minutes into the city to the Hotel Victoria where we'd spend the next four nights. With no tour plans on day one, all we had to do was check in, immediately have some Cuban espressos at the hotel bar, get some local currency (foreigners can only spend Cuban Convertible Pesos, or CUCs, pronounced "kooks"), and set off for a stroll around our side of this spread out, two-million-resident city.

Setting off in our 2-hours-of-sleep-zombie-like-state, we walked about two blocks toward the malecón before a friendly local named Robert (not Roberto) saw us taking photos and asked where we were from. Robert was heading to Austin the following week for a musical event - he's a percussion teacher. A very sweet young man, he instructed us on how to enjoy Cuba with the important advice to, "don't be shy". He also let us know that to really get to know Cuba we should not just see the tourist areas, but also get to know Cubans, in their own homes. All reasonable advice. We're staying in Vedado, on the west side of Havana, with Havana Vieja toward the east. In between is about a mile and a half of el Centro, which is much more the "real Havana". Robert suggested visiting not just the restored and heavily touristed Havana Vieja, but also el Centro, where you'll find real Cubans, better food, and can also shop for rum and cigars directly from the people at neighborhood co-ops (he called them "community projects") instead of at the higher priced state-run stores. Just some friendly advice and he was on his way.

Thanking Robert for the tips, we set off toward the malecón to see the waterfront. The waves were pretty big, with water splashing up and over onto the sidewalks. A police officer had to blow his whistle to let us know we weren't supposed to be over there. Apparently there was a pretty big storm a couple days earlier which did some damage in some of these neighborhoods, and clearly left quite a bit of sand on the roadways and sidewalks.

Heading inland and into el Centro, we happened upon another friendly Cuban named Joel (pronounced szho-ell), who was also interested to know where we were from. After a brief chat, he also instructed us that today was the Saturday each month when the neighborhood co-ops could sell cigars and rum to tourists. Like Robert, he also advised us to steer clear of both changing money on the street or buying cigars off of the street. I asked where these co-ops were located, and he pointed in a general easterly direction. Seeing my confused face, he said he could just walk us over there, and proceeded to take us to a home a few blocks away. 

Here we met Yassir and his mother, who worked at a cigar factory. The "home" consisted of two walk-in closet sized rooms with bare concrete floors, one in which his mother sat, and another with a small display of cigars and two bottles of rum on a simple table. After a brief display of the merch, he showed us how to tell good quality by smelling/feeling/rolling/squeezing the cigars to show how tightly they're rolled and how they're not too soft or firm, insisting that we smell several of them.  A bit of negotiating, and we were on our way with a box of 25 Cohiba cigars for 130 CUCs.

It wasn't long after, when the cobwebs started clearing from our heads (Caroline's first) that we realized that this was not a legitimate "co-op". and while the cigars we bought looked legit (lovely box complete with proper wording and stamp on the bottom, authentic looking bands, seal with hologram applied to the box), it seemed highly likely that we had just gotten swindled. We decided we had likely purchased one good cigar, the tester, along with 24 terribly cheap ones. Painful lesson learned, and feelings toward the three "friendly" Cubans we'd met on our walk turned a bit sour - mostly for feeling like a dupe.

After that whole debacle, it was pretty much time to get to dinner and then bed. Dinner was included in the tour package at the hotel, which made things easy but terribly boring. And the special menu we were allowed to order from didn't make things any more exciting. The food wavered between bad and strange, but was not in short supply. Perhaps the most Cuban take on the hotel's international cuisine was Scott's penne all'amatriciana starter, which turned out to be a warm, mayonnaise-y pasta salad with peas. We're quite certain there are better meals to come.

And with that, it was off to bed to get ready for our early, busy Sunday tour schedule!

View of San Salvador from the air
First stop: Cuban coffee at our hotel bar. Definitely one of the best of the trip
Our room at the Hotel Victoria - a mix of older & quaint and cheap-modern.  Caroline quite liked it. The beds were more comfortable than they might appear.  Imagine a mildew smell for an authentic experience.
The bathroom was stylish and thoughtfully remodeled
Scott, lover of foreign haircuts, scopes out a potential spot near our hotel for later
Robert-not-Roberto happily poses for a pic with Caroline.  We're still not entirely sure whether he was involved in the Great Havana Cigar Scam...
Counterfeit cigars, in an authentic box with authentic seals.  So close, yet no cigar... Ha!
Popular local hangout across the street from the malacon and the sea

Typical Havana architecture
Havana street scene
The waves were washing over the break wall when we arrived, closing down the malacon to all traffic, both pedestrian as well as vehicular
Bright-eyed and bushy-haired after our red-eye flight...and ready to take on Havana!
Much of Havana appears to be crumbling to the ground, but it's a romantic and beautiful sort of crumbling...
View of Havana's grand dame, the historic Hotel Nacional, from the malacon
Dinner at the hotel.  Little did we know that Caroline's fried potato-and-meat croquettes and Scott's creamy pasta are pretty typical Cuban fare, but these were especially unappetizing versions.  Much to Caroline's chagrin, they really seem to love their mayonnaise-y based pastas and sauces here almost as much as their pork.  At least the beer was tasty and served in fancy glasses (de riguer in Cuba)!

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