Cultural Exchange: Our Cuba Trip

Last month Richard flew to Jamaica to see me and my work and how my life is here.  There will be two blogs later to follow-up on that, one from myself and one from Richard.  This was an amazing time and I know that this man is definitely meant to be in my life.  As wonderful as it was for him to come here the big highlight of his visit was that I sucked it up and paid for a trip to Cuba.  What an amazing adventure.  **Please note to Americans, if you are wanting to visit Cuba you must do so on a People to People Visa.   The requirements are quite simple, limit your visit to cultural, historical, and anthropological agendas.  This means you spend time outside of the tourist attractions and with the people and in the museums.

There are a few things, if you are an American, you must do if you visit Cuba.

  1. There is no way to access any American Debit/Credit card once you get there, so take enough money to enjoy your stay.  I am dead serious, no bank machine works on your cards there.  We made that mistake and had to limit our purchases and could have enjoyed ourselves much more had we understood that it was not just that shops do not take your card but the nothing in Cuba does.
  2. Your Gmail, iPhone, Android accounts all lock you out.  I needed to make an email to let people know I made it and fortunately Facebook still works, so write those important things down.  Also if you want to download a translator App do so before you leave, you cannot get any apps once you are in Cuba.  Uncle Sam is obviously watching you!
  3. If you want to truly experience how Cubans live and who they are, I plead to you to register with Air B & B TODAY!  This was the most amazing part of our visit.  We stayed with a lovely family just outside of Havana.  They spoke no English, we speak very little Spanish, but they had a translator program that assisted in us asking questions about their lives.  It is the most amazing experience, similar to Peace Corps host family, you get a true feeling for who they are and how they live.
  4. Forget the transportation system!  Hire a local person with a car to take you to points of interest.  In Cuba the drivers are limited to where they are allowed to take tourist.  Cuba only wants you to see what it wants to promote.
  5. Forget everything you learned in school about Cuba, ask the people what it is like to live in communism, explain how it was represented to you and engage in a civil conversation seeking to understand.
  6. Walk as much as you can, rest often and drink mostly water, it is very hot there.  We ended up getting lost and walking 16 miles one day around Old Havana, thru New Havana and back to Seville.
  7. There are two types of money in Cuba.  Do not get them confused.  CUK is what tourist are to use and CUP is what the local people use.  25CUP=1CUK.  1CUK=$0.95 USD.  If you see a price for a beer at $50 remember this is in CUP and it will cost you less than $2.50 USD.  Food is fairly cheap and you get a lot for the cost.  Tourists are not allowed to carry CUP and they will never give you CUP in change for CUK.

We ended up staying the night in Kingston the day before our flight, it was an early flights.  We flew out of Kingston and had a flight change in Grand Cayman.  So hey I saw the Grand Cayman airport in Georgetown twice!   Unlike US flights once you get off to switch planes you must go through customs and immigration and gather your luggage, to recheck it and go back around through security again.  This might be all international flights, but the second security check seems ridiculous to me.  We arrived in Havana around 4pm.  Our host met us there and hired a driver to take us to his place.  We were immediately welcomed and then realized we did not exchange the money at the Cambio. It had seemed closed to me when we went past it.  Immediate stress on our part since we needed to buy dinner and pay the driver.  The driver, Alfredo had a friend who could exchange money for us.  Richard went with Alfredo while I spent some time with the host family getting to know them and discuss what I wanted to see.

Richard said he got to the guy’s home and the man took the money to a back room and was back there for over 5 minutes.  This is something that I would not find odd at all having lived in Liberia and Jamaica, but for Richard it seemed sketchy.  I assured him it was normal for less developed areas.  He got an exchange rate that was a little lower than normal since he was not dealing with a Cambio.

We were offered fresh made guava juice, we drank this daily and it was delicious.  I cannot express how much I love guava.  Even here in Jamaica I look forward to the guava season.  We went to a bit of a more upscale restaurant for dinner.  I ended up accidentally ordering something with ham in it!  Tostones with Jam in Cuba is a plantain flattened and rolled into a cup filled with ham and cheese, jam is ham.  We both had a beer and I had a salad, which was a variety of vegetable separated on the plate.  I also ordered crema de queso, which is a heated cream with cheese in it.  It is delicious.  I had that twice while I was there!

We came back to the house and spent some time with the hosts before retiring for the evening.  The next day we had planned a fairly early day.  Similar to Jamaica things do not run on a schedule.  Alfredo took us to Havana but stopped first along the way to some urban farm stuff so I could see the farms I had asked to see.  I loved how it was done, sadly I suspect that all the bragging about organics farming is bunk.  Just because they do not deal with the US does not mean that they have no access to things.  They most certainly do.

We were driving a scenic route through New Havana and points of interest were pointed out to us.  We were then dropped off at a local landmark and told to return there by 3pm.  We first went to the Castro Museum.  According to our hosts, the Cuban government was corrupt and run by the mafia until Castro overthrew the government in what they refer to as revolution.  I understand that Cubans will not speak out against Castro, but for the most part in the beginning he was well-loved and respected.  He ran the thugs out of Cuba and ruled with a strong hand to prevent future infiltrations.  (I must confess here, I am very curious about communism and am looking for signs that it can work and it doesn’t have to be totalitarian regime.  I feel that the intention was this in the beginning.)

I must stop here to mention that our host is an author and wrote a book about his wife and her relationship with her dad.  Her dad left Cuba in the early 60’s, I think.  He defected to the United States and she grew up in Cuba.  He is an American National hero for his role in the Bay of Pigs and in other Naval operations as he moved up the ranks in the US navy.  As proud Cubans, they are also proud of her father and his role, at least I think they were.  Again translation may have been lost.  Anyway, Pedro, our host brought out stacks of pages of research.  It was all in English and it was letters of accommodation and promotion for Ana Marie’s father. (This is our Pedro’s wife and our host as well.)

We wandered around Old Havana, this is the heart of the touristy stuff, outside of the beaches and resorts.  I did love the market and all of the old pins and buttons and communist posters.  Also funny thing, I did not know that Earnest Hemingway wrote “The Old Man and the Sea” in Cuba.  (I seriously hate Hemingway because this book was so damn boring!)  Almost everywhere you turned there was a copy of this book for sale.  Also for anyone that collects Vinyls there is a treasure trove of old, old vinyls there.

We ate lunch at an outdoor pizza place, and one thing you should know is that everyone expects a tip.  The musicians, the lady who literally pushed the buttons on the elevator at the museum both demanded tips from us.  So very strange.  We did eventually find our way back to our pick up point and shortly after we arrived Alfredo drove up.  He drove us home a different way, and this will be important for the next day.

We walked around Seville that evening with our host leading the way.  As clean as Cuba is, there is still a huge trash problem and my bubble was burst when I saw where the trash goes.  An improvement over Jamaica, only in that they do not allow it to be seen on the ground, instead they push it into the gullies.  We ended up eating at a little ice cream shop.  This was a pretty funny point for us.  Cubans call a scoop of ice cream, balls.  The girl was giving me prices to all the ice cream and she was like 1 ball, 2 balls, 3 balls, 5 balls!  The ice cream was delicious, but so was the grilled cheese sandwiches we had.

Our hosts offered to fix us breakfast each day for $5 a piece.  We gladly accepted this and were blessed with some wondrous fresh fruit straight from their yard. Fresh guava juice and Cuban coffee were also amazing.  Cuban coffee is served in a super tiny cup similar to espresso and it is only sweetened, no milk is added, I have been lied to all my life.  I thought Cuban coffee was served with condensed milk, it is not.  Also Richard was told communism would lead to standing in line for bread, false.  He and the host walked to the bakery to pick up two loaves the first night for breakfast the next day.  I do not like beets, but as courtesy I ate the beets we were offered on toast with eggs.  It was actually quite nice.  I cannot determine if the beets were fresh or canned.  The second day we had the rest of the beets and tomatoes.  All three breakfasts consisted of bread toasted, eggs cooked with onion, fruit, coffee, guava juice and some sort of side dish.  The last day instead of beats we were given home-made mayo which was far superior to jarred stuff and this block of hard brown stuff similar to taffy.  I believe it was tamarind and it was amazing.  Then Ana Marie said to put the mayo on the mystery substance and that actually tasted good as well.

On Saturday, our last official day to spend touring we decided to walk.  We first were going to check out the local town, but eventually wandered into Old Havana.  We ended up walking 16 miles that day and boy did our legs feel it.  We took a more vested look at the architecture and noticed much more about the way people live.  People would sell things out of their doors or on their stoops.  I did notice a line to a department store, it seems that limiting how many are allowed in at a time is crucial.  I believe it was about safety and not so much control as the buildings are quite weathered.  If you look down a doorway into a building you can see that the roof is often missing in the middle and people tend to migrate to the exterior areas.  It seems that the middle of buildings are allowed to crumble but the faces are kept up.  You can see into people’s living rooms and although modestly furnished they were quite clean and tidy.  Being that we were not with a group tour we were able to see things that we as foreigners are not supposed to see.

Cuba is like a step through a time portal.  Old movies depicting life in the Bronx or Brooklyn where kids played stickball in the street and old cars drove through is exactly what parts of Havana look like.  The fact that main roads are shared with mostly old American cars from the 50’s and 60’s and newer cars from other parts of the World along with donkey carts and bicycles is pretty telling of  time standing mostly still.   When we got close to home that last night we stopped at a little restaurant and ordered dinner.  There was no beer there so lucky for us the hosts had filled  a little fridge with beer and bottled water.  It seems that you must first boil water in Cuba before you drink it, I suppose for a foreigner that is a good practice no matter where you visit as water systems change from place to place and your body needs a bit of time to adjust to it.  I had asked about just refilling the bottles and I hope I did not offend our hosts as I was simply horrified by the wastefulness of single-use bottles.

I do not know if you know this but Cuban music is just as diverse as American music.  They have pop, they have cultural and they even have some serious death metal going on.  The video here is my favorite but it is because of the story it tells.  It tells of the Castro Revolution and how he saved the people from the brutal Mafia Dons.

Internet is limited there.  People have cell phones but they are not useful outside of the metropolitan areas.  In many parks you will find a lot of people on their phones looking up things, watching You Tube and checking into Facebook.  Our hosts did have internet but only on their computer, so WIFI is not prevalent there.  If you are in a park and see many persons on their phones and some man psssst at you he is only trying to let you know he has pre-paid internet cards available for sale.  It was $3 CUK for 1 hour and that lasts until you use up the hour.  So I leave you with this question, if you paid for every moment you were on the internet how would you budget that?  It seems a crazy idea, but much of the World is operating this way, so how would you manage your time?

More Pictures here:



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