I’ve been raving about Cuba for the past three weeks now – its beautiful landscape, its warm people, its inspiring colors – but let’s talk practicalities for a second. The questions on everyone’s mind are probably:
1. HOW do you get into Cuba? It’s fairly simple for Canadians and Europeans, but for Americans it gets a little bit more complicated. First of all, no travel agents in the US will book tickets, rental cars or hotels, so you are restricted to the internet, agencies outside the US or calling Cuba directly for reservations. You can travel from anywhere else but the US – there are no direct flights – so you need a connecting city. We traveled from New York to Mexico City – but you could do Cancun, Jamaica or Montreal too – and then took a flight to Havana on Air Cubana, and came back the same way.
At the airport in Mexico City you pay for a visa. It’s a $25 small piece of paper that you keep in your passport and gets stamped when you arrive at the border patrol in Havana. To make sure they don’t stamp your passport you have but to ask the guy in the booth, but they’re used not to anyways. I traveled on my Belgian passport and Zani on her Swiss, but Charlotte who only has an American passport got stopped. But so did our British photographer friend and his Polish girlfriend. (So they don’t just target US visitors.) The officers thought the couple was in Cuba for a fashion shoot and didn’t think that was so kosher… Zani’s suitcase was turned upside down and after some grief, power play and disbelief we were sent off. The officers claimed it was “routine” but we felt a little victimized… (This may sound silly but I’d wear something colorful and happy. Nothing abrasive like military jackets or black leather. You want to be at your most disarming. And say as little as possible. “No hablo Espanol?” )
2. Where to stay? Try to rent a Casa Particular, not a hotel. It’s more interesting and you get a taste of every day life in Cuba. Some homes and beds are more comfortable than others so do some research on-line first, or consult your Lonely Planet.
3. What to read? Yes, bring Lonely Planet! Read up on the history of the cities you’re conquering, find the best places to stay, eat and visit, figure out your next move while you’re on the move. It’s the back packer’s and road tripper’s bible, and for good reason.
4. How’s the food? Despite the tasty rice and beans you may have sampled in Miami, the Cuban kitchen is not that flavorful or diversified. I’m not a snob when it comes to food – I eat airplane food with much pleasure and delight – but the lack of ingredients does wear on you after a while. The main dishes are an unnamed “grilled fish” and “lobster”. Pork and beef are paper thin, overcooked slices of meat. Vegetables are restricted to tomato, lettuce, onion, sometimes potatoes. I only saw beans on the menu once. But the upside is that everything is very organic! When we had lunch in the mountains after our hike, the very chickens that would land on our plates were literally huddling around our feet.
It still baffles me though that a country with such a great climate and massive amounts of available land would not grow more crops. Farmers could be producing anything that sprouts in soil. But we didn’t even see a fruit as simple as an apple. There are no mangos, no pears, no avocados, no eggplants, and so on… just bananas, pineapple, oranges, lemons, papaya and lots of guava. According to our guide, the school teacher, this is due to the fact that 1. private, small investments are not allowed, prohibiting people to start a business and grow on their own and 2. the government grew lazy and never learned how to. The potatoes for example were always shipped in from Russia, until 1991. After that, they were left to their own devices and struggled.
What’s also very disconcerting is that the big hotels do have a smorgasbord of foods. And you wonder, where do they get it all? That’s why you much rather stay at people’s homes. You feel like a bit of an asshole eating smoked salmon while people just outside the window don’t even have regular soap.
5. Any fashion? Absolutely. And it’s all happening in Trinidad. If you thought Havana was stuck in time, try this little town. It’s as if the clocks stopped ticking in 1850! It’s folklore at its best. As soon as the sun goes up, people’s homes become centers of business. Some sell homemade linens – like the shirts I am wearing in the pictures – and crochet dresses from the foyer, others open their doors as lodging, or convert their living rooms into smooth running restaurants, others wrangle tourists for taxi rides to the beach. Government wages are very low in Cuba. Our school teacher for example earns $25 per month! If you consider that a soda costs 50 cents you can imagine he is not capable of feeding his family. So, like everyone else, he is forced to take a second job, off-the-books. And tourism seems to be the new frontier. There is also a thriving black market. People with government jobs will take goods from work and sells them to make extra money. So whether or not you condemn the unreasonable financial affront the Cubans deal with, they have found a resourceful way to make it work and lead happy lives. We didn’t see any homeless people, nor crime, so I’d say the Cubans are a pretty self-sufficient people.
6. What about the Benjamins? American dollars and credit cards are useless. So you bring Cuban CUCs – the conversion rate is almost 1 to 1 with the US dollar – or exchange your currency at the local hotels or in Mexico.
7. Anything to declare? They tell you not to import any Cuban goods into the US, but try to sneak back some cigars, rum and coffee. Don’t forget Cuba is the birthplace of the mojito and the Cuba Libre, and the home of the heralded Cohiba! So when you’re back home, cozied up on your couch, watching the twirling snow outside your window, all you need to do it light up and pour to re-live your Cuban Nights. Because they’re bound to be unforgettable…