The first time I flew to Cuba, I was 19 years old. I had been traveling Mexico for almost a month when I learned from an Australian in Mexico City that Americans traveled to Cuba all the time via Cancun. A couple of months earlier, back in the states, I had been flirting with the idea of doing a detour to Cuba by sketching out a rough itinerary of my travels down the Central American continent. But then my mom found the paper and nearly beat me with… whatever she had on hand. Usually a belt, a piece of cable or a giant mango.
“Do you know who Fidel Castro is? Estas loca! No! You will not go to Cuba!”
I don’t think it was rebelling against my mother that made me do it, or rebelling against the US Government who place hefty fines on those who break the law. It was a combination of curiosity and impulse. I had bused in from Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula and arrived to Cancun early in the afternoon. When I stepped off the bus, I saw a sign: $220 vuelo a Cuba c/ visa.
I walked into the travel agency, curious to know if I could actually go there with an American passport. The travel agent explained that as long as they stamped my visa and not my passport, I would be fine.
A few minutes later, I stood in front of the travel agency, in my flipflops, with my fingers curled around the orange straps of my backpack. I was facing the street, the hot sun beating down on me, car exhaust fuming in my face. I was feeling awe-struck and disoriented for two reasons. One, I had spontaneously purchased a round-trip flight to Cuba for the next day – I would be going sola. And two, I wondered if there were any hostels in Cancun.
The second time I flew to Cuba was different. James had flown to Mexico in November (2014) and purchased a flight from Merida and flew to Cuba a week later. Fearing that I wouldn’t be as lucky as I was the first time (9 years ago) and book the flight for the next day once I arrived to Cancun, James gave me the number of a travel agency in Mexico so that I could reserve the flight in advance.
I Skyped the travel agency in mid-December and chose a date to fly out and fly back (I chose January 4, 2015, returning January 25, 2015). I had 48 hours to email the travel agent a copy of my passport and send $230 to a Rosalinda Melinda Vasquez via Western Union. I hate Western Union, and sending money to a Rosalinda brought up a red light but James purchased it from that agency and I was antsy to see my boyfriend. So I sent the money, reserved the flight and flew to Cancun two weeks later. I flew to Havana the next day.
At the Jose Martí International Airport in Havana, I waited in line for a precedent 40 minutes to get through immigration. These officers loved taking their sweet time; a travel writer I met on the line next to me said that it made them feel important.
As with my last time there when the officer asked me if I would like her to stamp my passport. I gave her a knowing smile and said, “Noooo.”
“Bienvenido a Cuba!”
The good is that the trade embargo is lifted, it’s now legal to fly to Cuba from the US and a US embassy even opened up in Havana a few weeks ago. Source: The NY Times. I don’t know the knitty gritty about how to fly to Cuba from the US (I assume it would be through Miami), I just found it easy doing it the non-legal way.
Most people, including myself, have said, “Now is the time to go to Cuba… go now before it changes… go now before tourism wrecks havoc on the land… go now before it becomes another touristy Caribbean getaway.”
This is true. When I first came to Cuba, it was aesthetically the most beautiful country I ever stepped foot on. The buildings are venerable and are in dire need of a paint job. The tropical beaches lack the commercial boardwalks with people selling junk food, towels and other beach trinkets. And then there are the old American cars…
What will happen when the trade embargo dispels? Cuba will have easier access to cement, bricks and paint. Foreigners will build hotels and block the beaches – it will turn into another Cancun. And Cubans will retire from their part-time jobs as lifelong mechanics. Good bye ancient buildings, good bye desolate beaches and good bye 1949 Fords and Chevrolets. And if you feel that you’ve missed it, there is still time – I hope. Transition takes time, right?
However, as I was leaving, the Cuban government was doing away with the double currency (not that this has anything to do with the lifting of the trade embargo). I regret not collecting extra 3 Peso Bills with Che on it. I gave the last one to a Rhodesian bastard.
Moving on, in Havana there is el capitolio (the capital building) which looks just like the white house in DC. Cubans call it “The White House” and they like to boast that theirs is taller than the actual white house.
Taller by how much?
3.7 meters which is significant. But then James and I watched a movie called “7 Days in Havana” with Josh Hutcherson where his character discovered that el capitolio was taller than the white house by 3 centimeters. This of course, gave the emblem some comical relief. James knows DC very well and he thinks it’s 3 meters; I’ve never been to DC so I don’t know what to believe. What I do believe is that this white boy, Josh Hutcherson has a thing for Latina women (join the club!) because this is the second Latin film I saw in the span of seven days and he appeared in both.
Strolling down Old Havana I noticed that something was missing on that walk. There were no colorful billboards harassing me to buy from The Gap because the five women wearing the cardigans are as diverse as the colors they wore. The buses, instead of being plastered with a call to action to watch the next season of Glee, were old school buses with cat scratches and old paint.
Most interestingly, there was no Mc Donald’s in sight, no Starbucks, no Payless Shoe stores, not one American franchise. This was a breath of fresh air.
In place of all that advertising, there were plenty of propaganda for the government; we saw it on billboards and newspapers. Reading through the Cuban newspapers was fascinating as it was all pro-government and anti-capitalist. James read the La Granma Cuban newspaper everyday and kept a stack. If you become friends with him and have a good talk about history and economics over a few beers, he might just give you a copy as an act of friendship.
When I tell people that I’ve been to Cuba, most will either know that it’s illegal and ask me, “Well how did you do it?” or, they will ask me about the cars. They want to know if there are actually old Fords and Chevrolets in Cuba. In fact, walking in Havana felt like walking into a scene out of an early Mad Men episode when Don Draper took his family on a vacation. Vintage American cars are everywhere. Most taxis and collectivos (small buses) that we rode in were in these antiquish cars. I would usually ask the driver about the year of the car and we would marvel at how in great shape the car was for essentially being a fossil. Case in point, Cubans are champs when it comes to repairing things. (Read James’s bit about people who repair lighters)
I’ll never forget the time a man fixed the broken hinge from my prescription glasses. It was a one man operation, him and his desk, somewhat hidden behind a parking lot. Since he had a jar of spare parts, I took a minute to shop for new temples and go for a different look; I chose red because it’s my favorite color. Using the heat from a car battery, the man welded the temples to my glasses. It’s as if I got a new pair of glasses for only $2 bucks. The man’s unwritten guarantee in surprisingly good broken English was, “They, will never break.” I’m wearing them right now.
Going back to the cars…
We hired a taxi driver to take us from old Santiago in the east to beach town Baracoa in the north. It was a thrilling 4-5 hour ride that took us through Guantanamo where we got a small peak of the prison building from a birds eye view. We didn’t see anyone in orange jumpers but still, we saw the bay and it was chilling. The car we rode in was the oldest we’ve witnessed, a 1948 Ford.
Top 3 Favorite Cities in Cuba
If you only have a week, spend it in Havana, enjoy the beaches and if you must, visit one other touristy town like Trinidad or Villas del Mar in the west. If you are a slow traveler – which I’ve become thanks to the luxury of having lots and lots of time and becoming a freelancer – the kind that likes to spend a few days in one town before moving on, try hitting my top three.
3. Holguin – The Charlie Chaplin Burlesque Show
Holguin is a young town which felt very upper middle class all around. You won’t find a beach nearby but if you’re open minded and if you like to walk, you will find that this town has lots of personality and charm. The majority of the population consists of college students, teachers and artists. Of the couple whom we rented a room from (for $20 a night), the wife was a tango instructor who organizes tango festivals throughout the Central American continent.
Holguin is off the beaten track and the only reason we ended up there was because one, it broke our journey in half from Baracoa to Trinidad (we didn’t want to spend 10 hours on a bus) and two, most importantly, it has a baseball stadium and James just had to watch a game. The game cost’s 12 cents per person to enter. Where at the Petco park in San Diego, advertising from sponsors will be plastered just about everywhere you turn, in Cuba the only advertisement was this. See photo below.
By the way, this was the first game that I’ve gone to outside the states. Personally, dating a guy from Cleveland has turned me into a Cavs fan and a Browns fan (no shame in the latter) and yet, I still don’t know what’s going on half the time at these games. The energy and excitement from the crowd is contagious so it’s easy to get into. The point I want to make here is: you don’t have to be a sports fan to enjoy a game in Latin America. I’ve seen several games already and it is a great way to get a taste of the country’s culture and passion for something that is ingrained in the Latino DNA: to have another thing to celebrate about.
The highlight in Holguin was watching The Charlie Chaplin Burlesque Comedy Show. I’m a Charlie Chaplin fan, in fact, my sister and I went through a phase where we used to rent a Charlie Chaplin video (on VHS of course) at Johnny’s down the block every week. Charlie Chaplin is original and a genius for his physical comedy. Good, now that we got that, let me tell you about this show in Cuba.
The Cuban Charlie Chaplin made no effort to be silly, he was there to hold women’s
hands who contemplated the meaning of burlesque out loud and then broke out into a song. In between those numbers, there was also some dancing.
One dance number consisted of six men with Zac Efron cut abs wearing tight booty shorts in red, yellow, pink and neon blue. They wore suspenders, too, and did their own burlesque-ish moves, the men touched one another and showed off their toned legs with high kicks and splits. This dance made the audience whisper among themselves, and then settle into an awkward silence. I tried to watch vicariously through the local audience, I tried to be a naïve Juana, 12-years old being pulled close to her conservative mother’s arm, one hand covering her eyes, my hand removing it. I felt tense.
Little Juana wanted to know, “What’s going on?”
Big Juana wanted to know, “How could anyone not celebrate this?”
The guys did their dance, it was controversial, brave and very, very sexy. Then involuntarily, someone let out a loud hoot. Everyone from the front row seats to the row of middle aged women and grannies sitting next to us turned their heads in our direction. We heard gasps all around the theater and then, finally, we heard a few chuckles. James let out an air of relief and I felt the tension in my neck ease out.
A minute later, someone else let out a hoot, it was followed by a third and maybe a small fourth. I squeezed James’s hand as we experienced the bewitching moment together. It was a moment of transformation, a moment of progression; and in the wake of that moment, I felt like an alchemist for being incapable of shutting my big Juana mouth.
That’s it for now! Did you enjoy it? I tried ending on a high note.
In part 2, I will describe my top two favorite places in Cuba, can you guess what they are?
I will also go into the “The Bad” and “The Ugly” of Cuba which will include my observation of how socialism has affected the people’s attitude towards customer service; deprivation and proper links to James’s blog. My working title is: Cuba – Part 2 – The Food, The Bad, and Always Minimizing Profits.
PS Follow me on Twitter @WanderingJuana where I will tweet about the beauty and quirkiness of Colombia. A country which I’ve fallen in love with so fast.
@Susan – After Cuba, I will post a blog about the people here in Colombia. I am almost done with it!