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March 23, 2012 / catherinebwrites


We landed in Habana after 12 hours travelling with our knees up our noses.   But that’s long haul for you.   We eat the vile airline food, you try to sleep.    We breathe in.   We breathe out.   And finally… we arrived, crumpled, sweaty, our bodies in Habana, our spirits still hovering somewhere above the Atlantic Ocean.
            We found the baggage carousel and waited …and waited… and waited… and waited.   Three-quarters of an hour later our cases arrived.   We joined the line for passport control and waited…and waited…and waited… and waited.   Cuban passport Control involves a lot of writing on forms, a lot of stamping of things, a lot of scrutinising and comparing between your face and your passport photo.   Then they command you to stand back, take off your glasses and look into the camera and click… you’re on their computer.   They compare that, with your passport and you several times….   And finally … we were free.    That took an hour!  
We headed for Currency Exchange.   The queue was even longer here.   Fortunately a friend had advised us to slip upstairs to Departures where the queue was short.   Otherwise, who knows how long we might have waited.
Okay, so Cuba is a poor nation.   It’s often like this in poor nations and besides, they inherited their bureaucracy from the Russians.   And no one loves Byzantine complexity more than the Russians. 
            Outside the airport all was chaos.   It was already dark, the temperature was in the high 20’sC and there were only a few dim bulbs.   There are no airport busses in Cuba.   Hotels do not send coaches and Casas Particulares ( Cuban B+Bs) are not allowed to send taxis to pick you up.   Taxis were coming at us from all directions but none were available.   Newly arrived passengers milled about like bewildered koalas.   Men in yellow shirts bustled about shouting at taxi-men and chivvying people into vehicles, apparently at random.   Men, assuring us that they had a friend with a taxi, dashed into the dark. Finally somebody asked if we’d mind sharing a taxi and off we shot into the night.
            The taxi-man did not know how to get to the first address.    We hurtled into the city, down a couple of lit streets and then plunged into streets with no lighting.   The taxi driver kept stopping to ask for directions.   At one of these stops, in particularly dark street, a door opposite opened and inside there was a blue light.   Latin music throbbed and a crowd of people ranging from grannies to infants were inside dancing  shaking their booties.   Finally we found our address and discovered that both groups of passengers had to pay the full price!   Well it’s a poor country… 
            We arrived at our Casa Particular where we were met by Armando.   The front door had a piece of scarred metal tacked over it.   Armando hauled our suitcases up two flights of dimly lit stairs.   Cracked steps, peeling paint, a broken window…   Welcome to Havana!
Inside the apartment was neat and clean and we met Armando’s grandmother Luisa, an old lady of 84 who was running the B+B with his help.   He did the required form-signing and passport-examination.   She made us coffee.    Our bedroom was simple, clean and comfortable and we had our own bathroom.
In the morning Armando helped with the huge breakfast of fruit, fried eggs and chips, bread, honey, coffee and fruit juice.   Once he’d established that we were, in his words, “very good people. Muy simpaticos.” And that I could speak Spanish, he  left us to his granny.   We never saw him again instead she was joined by a friend, Coralia who helped.
Our place was so close to the seafront, the Malecon, that we decided to start there.    Just as we went to cross a large junction, a long white 1950’s American car swung round the corner.  
“Wow, look at that!” we exclaimed in delight. “One of the famous fifties cars.   Oh wow!”
And immediately the front wheel fell off!   The driver jumped out.   The passengers staggered out.   Men appeared from nowhere to help and advise.   They got the wheel back on,  they opened the bonnet, and there… my abiding image of Cuba.   Four men, tón san aer. (arse in the air) heads deep in the innards, repairing the car.   Car breakdowns become so commonplace that you stop noticing.
            Havana is stunningly beautiful.    Like a combination of all the best bits of beautiful Spanish towns with a Caribbean flavour.   Beautiful 18th C and 19th C buildings both public and private with pillars and porticos and decoration.   But they look like they’ve suffered some earth-shattering catastrophe.   All of them are  crumbling .    Lovely detached houses with porticoed balconies, plaster decoration, have peeling paint, washing hanging outside and three or four families living inside.  
Parts of the old city have been restored, courtesy of private foundations in Europe and Japan.   The restored buildings are glorious and all you want to do is take photos.   The squares in that old part attract lots of women dressed up in the old Cuban style.   Bright scarves tied on top of their heads at the front, multicoloured tiered skirts and baskets of fake flowers.   Every time a group of tourists arrive they swoop on as many of the men as they can and kiss then on the cheek for the camera and a tip.     Then there’s the peanut vendors, the cigarette lighter vendors, the cake vendors.  The guys that call “Pssssst” from doorways.
“You want cigars?   Very cheap.”
I was even approached one day by a teenager selling his school text books.
Not to mention the music.   Every bar, hotel and restaurant has a band and, as you seldom hear the same one twice, I assume there must be some kind of official rota.    But these bands are good and you can hear great Cuban music everywhere.   However, after three or four songs, they come to flog their CDs and collect tips.  The music also attracts dancers who perform for tips.  
Cuban people are incredibly friendly and thrilled when you speak a bit of Spanish.      However there are problems,
            They have two currencies, one for locals (Peso Nacional, PN) and one for tourists (Peso Convertible CUC.)    1 CUC = 24 PNs.    Restaurants and bars are priced for tourists so you pay for a meal what a Cuban doctor gets in a month!   Naturally Cubans think tourists are incredibly rich and, apart from the photograph ladies etc., almost everyone  you speak to asks for money… for the children.   And then there was the problem of getting information.
            We wanted to see the Cuban National Ballet which has world-wide reputation.    Someone said Carlos Acosta might be in town, or was that next week?   Or next month?  We decided to ask at the National Theatre.   The Security man sent us to two ladies sitting inside the hall at a desk.   They didn’t know anything about Carlos Acosta.   Will there be any ballet performance this week-end?   They shrugged and pointed to another lady sitting on a chair on the other side of the hall.   She knew nothing about nothing either. We tried several more doors and more employees of the National Theatre… Nada.   Someone suggested the Tourist Office.  
The tourist office official was all spit and polish and spoke English.   She tapped efficiently on a computer, pressed return and sat back.   Nothing.   She shrugged and she suggested we ask at the office of Cultural Affairs which was within walking distance.   
At the office of Cultural Affairs we passed the security person and headed straight for the two ladies behind a desk ( it’s a rule – every office and public building has to have them!).   They looked taken aback at our questions and informed us, in no uncertain manner, that they only dealt with paintings and sculpture and we should try a travel agency.  
We tried several, nobody knew nothing.   
            Finally we did get information but only because Coralia, our B and B lady, had been a dancer in her day and had contacts.   Even then we could only book tickets on a Thursday between 2 and 3 pm!   But we did get tickets and it was fabulous… you feared for the scenery but the dancing was top class.   And the orchestra kept missing out notes which made you fear that they would put the dancers out of time… but the dancers were fabulous.
            Car hire was prohibitively expensive so that scuppered our plan to drive to Santiago.  Besides, we could not get maps, the roads are poor, the driving dangerous and the signposting very desultory.   We went instead to Varadero where we were in an all-in hotel.   Varadero is a beach with hotels full of Canadians and Russians.   The Canadians were making comments like,
“I can’t understand why they wanted a revolution, they were doing fantastically well with the Americans in charge.”
The Russians were avoiding all eye contact with everyone and being unspeakably rude to the staff.
There is nothing more to be said about Varadero.
We returned to Havana and stayed in the Hotel Nacional.    It is the Hotel where all the Hollywood stars stayed pre-revolution.   It is advertised as a 5 star and it has a great location overlooking the sea with a fabulous terrace above the Malecon  (seafront).   But we’ve stayed in better three star hotels in China and Peru.   One of the things that made it uncomfortable was the sense that every time the staff did anything for you they were looking for money while believing that they were working in one of the world’s most luxurious hotels.
            The all over impression we had was that Cuban people are fabulous, friendly, funny and warm.    That they haven’t a notion how the rest of the world operates because their media is so censured.    Food is very poor and even fruit, which in the tropics you’d expect to be good, was of the poorest quality.  The music and dancing are first class.   
With honourable exceptions Cubans do not understand what it is to work.    They keep telling you that everyone has a job but, the sense you get in the streets is of a lot of people hanging around smoking and talking with their friends.   It seemed to us that many of the “jobs” are nominal.   Besides, as everyone gets paid more or less the same, i.e. really badly, why on earth would you bother killing yourself working? 
            They have a lot to learn about tourism.   Clearly they are only geared for all-in group tourists… and even then they seem unaware of  mass tourism standards elsewhere.   They are entirely unable to cope with independent tourists.   Whether that is the plan or not I’ve no idea Perhaps they do not really want us.   I kept thinking, why don’t you ask the Chinese for tourist information, or the Peruvians or the Africans?   Neither my husband nor I have any problem with basic services but the lack of information was the killer.  
A curious thing happened towards the end of our stay.   We were looking for cards in envelopes for Luisa and Coralia ( our B+B ladies)   We found the cards but  could not find any envelopes anywhere.   We tried every conceivable shop and I kept asking,
“Why is it so difficult to find envelopes?”
“The post.” Said some, “there are problems.”
“Do Cubans never write to one another?”
“No never.”
“Why not?”
“The post is only for foreigners!”
That says something about the state of information.
All that said every Cuban professes to love Fidel Castro, and I quote
“He has made mistakes but he is only human.   Mostly he is very wise.”
But they seem a lot less keen on Raul.    They have no answer to what might happen when both of the Castro boys have snuffed it.   They assured me that  they will stick to their anti –imperialist, socialist principles.   At the same time the queue for visas outside the American Trade legation every day  is very long indeed.


Leave a Comment
  1. Gold in the Shadows / Mar 23 2012 8:08 pm

    Ummm I really enjoyed reading this. But it did seriously dampen my enthusiasm for planning a trip to Cuba. However, should I do so, I will bring envelopes!


    • catherinebwrites / Dec 18 2012 5:29 pm

      Thanks for your comment. go to Cuba … but be like the boy scouts… prepared.


  2. helen wintrob / Apr 13 2012 7:58 pm

    Dear Catherine, As I had emailed you, I had pretty much the same exprience in Cuba in 1979. It is so complicated to make sense of socialist countries that are relatively committed to socialism and have "neighbors" 90 miles away committed to their destruction.Since 1989,when the soviet union crumbled and was no longer available to give aid to Cuba. my guess is that things have gotten much worse and some of the advances that had been made around things like mental health have gone by the wayside. However, as the mother of a college student, at least it is free. Big Difference.With love,Helen


  3. / Dec 18 2012 3:47 am

    My brother suggested I would possibly like this blog.
    He used to be entirely right. This publish truly made my day.
    You can not consider just how a lot time I had spent for this information!



  4. Zara / Jun 15 2020 6:33 pm

    That’s a lovely story. Cuba is one of the dream destinations to visit, but seems it has a lot of surprises for tourists and traveler 🙂 🙂


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