We just returned from a week in Cuba. It was interesting - very interesting. We went out of curiosity; we went because the Pope had just visited; we went because we were in the Bahamas anyway; we went because we werent allowed; we went because it was a challenge.
There is a US embargo against Cuba. It is illegal for US citizens to spend money in Cuba. The penalty, under the Trading with the Enemy Act, is up to a $250,000 fine and up to ten years in prison. The 1996 Helms-Burton Bill provides for a prejudicial fine of up to $50,000 on US citizens who visit Cuba at their own expense without US government permission.
In our Bahama week, prior to our Cuban odyssey, I read the book Waiting for Fidel while a storm pounded the shore. That book prepared me for the reality of Cuba: waiting.
A journey is an adventure when the outcome is uncertain. Our adventure began at daybreak on a clear windless Friday on Elbow Cay in Abaco, Bahamas. We walked, motored a boat and took a taxi to the airport to wait an hour and a half for our flight to Nassau on which we hoped we had a reservation. We did. Upon arriving in Nassau, we waited at the airport Dollar Rent-a-Car desk for five hours for our Havanatur agent Michael Larrow (242 322-2796). When he finally showed up, we paid cash for our round trip Cubana Air tickets. We hoped we had reservations. We didnt. While waiting standby, I was getting concerned. I was almost hoping we would be left standing-by. I was scared about going to Cuba; I was formulating alternate plans but the agent put in a good word at the counter and we were finally issued passage. We waited at the gate for another two hours before departing in a shabby old Soviet jet.
We touched down in Havana on that rainy evening. We waited an hour for our turn at immigration. We had no hotel reservations but we wrote Hotel Inglaterra on our visa because the guide book advised leaving no blank lines on the tourist card. I asked the agent not to stamp our passport. He smiled and complied. We were in with no trail! I only hoped we could exit as easily.
An airport Taxi pimp found us an illegal ride in a Soviet Lada. I was amazed to see that it actually operated. The drivers wife and kid were along for the ride. He took us and all of our scuba gear to the Hotel Inglaterra. When it started raining he stopped under an overpass, rearranged our bags to shut the trunk and put one bag on my lap. The Hotel Inglaterra was full. So he then came up with plan B: a Casa Particular.;a private home. He drove us to Martas illegal Bed and Breakfast. After the occupants of the the wrong apartment pointed us in the right direction, our driver yelled a dozen times from the street upstairs to Marta. We were ushered up marble stairs into a palatial 1920s apartment with 15 foot ceilings and a host who spoke some English-our first English on our journey. My Spanish is limited.
This home stay was the highlight of our adventure. Really. It was wonderful. Our hosts Juan and Marta were a charming couple in their 50s. They enlightened us to Cuban life:
He had been a Master Merchant Marine for 30 years. He traveled to communist ports in China, North Korea, Vietnam, Albania, Libya, East Germany and the Soviet Union. The apartment has treasures from around the globe. Then, the Soviet subsidy stopped with their break-up in 1989. Because of the lack of funds, the Cuban economy collapsed in 1993. (Thats when tens of thousands of people were fleeing in boats to Miami.) Cuba sold the fleet of 90 cargo vessels. Juan became unemployed.
In order to save the economy, Fidel decided to allow private enterprise and go on the dollar standard. Marta opened a restaurant at that time. Everything was wonderful for a while-until Fidel realized he should tax their efforts. The 100% tax proved excessive, so Marta shut down business and went underground. They get by today on their food rations as long as they can supplement their existence with our patronage.
They are bored. Juan spent the day at the cinema; Marta with friends. They have a nice home, but they cant sell it. They finally got a car after saving for 30 years but they cant sell it either. They hope to get a telephone some day. They miss their children who escaped to Spain but they are happy for them. They know they will have a better life. Our host proudly bragged that their 26 year old son already has a car and he has been in Spain only 4 months. I asked if they have grandchildren and Marta said no because their 30-year-old daughter married out of convenience not love. Our host kept saying that Cuba will have the oldest mean population by the year 2005 because there are few children and the young adults are finding ways to escape.
We took lessons on using their bathroom: First, you had to fill a bucket in the bathtub with water and pour it into the toilet bowl to flush. (I remember that trick from our earthquake days.) The toilet tank had a crack and replacements were not available. Toilet seats obviously werent available either. Then, to use the shower, you had to turn a switch on (which turned a light off), and wait a bit for the coils to heat the water at the shower head. Then, you turn the shower on a trickle so you dont get scorched. I had a cold shower before we figured it out.
We were hungry so went out on the town. Our B&B was on the main street of Havana, Calle 23 in Vedado. We walked the two blocks to the Habana Libre Hotel which was a bran-new Hilton before being nationalized in 1959. Now it caters to the European business men on holiday without their wives. The Cuban girls were out in full evening wear waiting for a date or their dreamed-for ticket off the island. The cabaret on the 25th floor had a two hour queue to pay the ten dollar cover because they had to slowly copy each passport; an anti-terrorists measure. We stayed at the bar downstairs. I drank Havana Club Rum-aged seven years. I was too tired to go up anyway.
Saturday morning we awoke to puffy white clouds filling a blue sky. We looked out our window to the tree-lined street below to see the most classic American car on the empty main street. Our host told us the green 50's model was a Buick. We then had breakfast with American coffee. Habaneros drink a small sweetened espresso.
We decided to spend the day planning our week and trying to get in some sightseeing. We walked the eight blocks to the Cubana Air office to confirm our return flight and book a flight to the Isla de la Juventud. I had wanted to go to Varadero to see the beach resort, the nationalized Dupont Mansion and scuba dive but the storms had blown out the north shore. The travel guide book said the island off the south shore had the best diving anyway. We got to the office ten minutes before noon. It was closed; it closed at noon. It would reopen Monday. From there we walked over to a travel agent. They were not able to confirm our return flight or book a flight over to the island because the computers were not available until Monday. She was able to take our money to make a reservation for the hotel and diving on the island. She couldnt confirm it though because the phone lines to the island werent working that day. She didnt want to make reservations unless we had transportation. So, we decided we would take the boat to the island 100 miles off shore. The travel agent told us to go to the bus station to get our boat tickets. We took a private taxi to the bus terminal but the office was closed for the rest of the day. We were told to return at 6 the next morning.
We took a state taxi to the opulent 1930s Hotel Nacional for lunch. We sat on the veranda watching the sea smash into the Bay of Havana break wall. We were serenaded by salsa mariachies. On the wall down the stairs to the restroom (which did have a toilet seat) was a fine photo of Fidel with Hemingway. After lunch we walked out to the cannons aimed out to sea. They were actually fired-but missed- during the Spanish-American-Cuban war in 1890. That bluff gave us a spectacular view of Havana. We walked back to our apartment stopping to admire all the old American classic cars. The city seemed frozen in the 50s; when Fidel took over. There werent many cars or bicycles. The people got around on camels; semi-trucks pulling containers with humps over the axles. Maintenance seemed minimal; buildings chipped and in need of paint; sidewalks torn up to expose faulty underground wiring; but there was no litter.
Back home Marta cooked us an illegal lobster dinner. We dressed to go out. Marta told us not to talk to black people. We talked about going to the Tropicana, a Las Vegas type show, but it was outdoors, there were occasional showers and the $100 price tag was a bit steep; The Copacabana Club was similar; The Habana Libre Cabaret Caribe line was too long so we decided on the Hotel Nacional Cabaret Parisen. We never got there. I now know that we should have gone to the cabaret Palacio de la Salsa in the Hotel Riviera.
On the way to the Cabaret Parisen we walked by a small indoor/outdoor arena with live salsa music. It was the nicest music I have ever heard. I would have liked to have gotten their recording. There were lots of kids hanging around and climbing the fences to the sold out event. We hung around and got hustled by a black man and his girlfriend. He said he was a good black man, not one of the bad ones we had heard about. We walked about ten blocks to his favorite club. He wanted us to pay his cover and buy him drinks. The club was a noisy disco. He assured us that there would be live music but I didnt like the acoustics anyway. We left with him in tow begging for dollars. We went back to the live concert but it was letting out. We had missed the 10 pm show at the Parisen so we walked back to the Libre for drinks. It was getting late so we went back home. We never got to a club.
We woke up early Sunday morning and took a taxi to the bus terminal to get our boat ticket. No, they said at the boat counter, this is where you buy the bus-boat ticket. You must go to the boat dock to get the boat ticket. We went back to the get our luggage and say our farewells to Marta. We negotiated a price to the dock in Batabano 100 miles to the south with a private driver. Half an hour into our drive across the width of the country we were stopped by the Policia. Two more cop cars showed up. During the half hour detainment, I was afraid that we would be deported or that our taxi driver would be arrested for illegally transporting tourists. We were finally let go. It appeared to be mistaken identity. The cops were looking for someone else and our driver was the nephew of some police commissioner. We drove another hour on an empty freeway that doubled as a military runway. We went past bunkers. The road degenerated into a Y with no signs. We waited for a truck and asked for directions. At the next unmarked intersection we asked a pedestrian for directions. At the next one, a car, and so on until we got to the dock two hours early. We got the last seats on the Soviet hovercraft (hydroplane?). We paid $11 for our two hour passage and another $34 for our bags. After searching our bags the Military inspector held our five dive knives for the passage. We waited for two hours with about 150 passengers before boarding. We were the only tourists. It was here that we really learned about the Peso/Dollar situation.
Cuba is officially on the dollar standard. All tourists must use US Dollars. Tourists are not allowed to use Pesos. The exchange rate is between 20 and 25 pesos to the dollar. Items are priced with one Peso/Dollar amount. Thus the $11 boat fare was 11 pesos for Cubans or 50 cents. They pay 1/20 of what we pay. We went to buy coffee in the waiting room but because we didnt have little enough money they gave it to us. The same thing happened at lunch on the boat. Lunch was 1 or 2 pesos but since we only had dollars we couldnt come up with the 5 cents in pesos so the lady sitting next to us bought.
The boat was a disappointment. We climbed into the back compartment and sat with 50 people. The windows were covered with permanent curtains. We were on a boat ride across the Caribbean and we could see nothing. We could barely see over the side wall at the bulkhead opening. I forgot to bring paper with me to the toilet which had no seat and didnt flush. I noticed others had used newspaper. Half way across to the island the boat stopped. It became a three hour tour. Our fellow passengers didnt seem concerned. They just waited.
We finally made it to the island. We didnt take the horse drawn taxi. We found a normal Lada to take us to the Hotel Colony 50 miles away, if we would buy gas first. The island was covered with overgrown grapefruit orchards. Our taxi driver stopped, climbed a tree and picked us some. He pealed it, cut the top off and we squished the juice into our mouth.
The Hotel Colony was isolated, 50 miles from the nearest town. This Hilton had just opened before it too was nationalized in 1959. It was deserted. It looked like it has been asleep for 40 years. The maintenance was substandard but clean. We walked out the pier. The turquoise Caribbean was muddy brown. The beach was trashed with sea grass and sea critters. There had obviously just been a major storm. Our room has satellite Direct TV. It only broadcast the free channels. We saw adds for the upcoming movies on Direct TV. But it did have VH1 and Discovery Channel. The Nagano Olympics had just started but was not available.
Monday morning, we took the hotel bus to the dive boat. We dove the next 4 dives in two days with a German couple, an Italian guy, a Brazilian group and a family with toddlers from Spain. We all communicated in broken English. The diving was crummy; the visibility was poor from the storm. We saw a nice wall; barely. We saw a giant crab on a ledge at 130 feet, 4 or 5 big lobster, some conch, a six foot Barracuda and one school of fish. We dove through some coral tunnels. Nothing to write home about.
We got a ride to the airport Tuesday night with the hotel concierge. The Brazilians suggested that I sit in the decompression chamber for an hour before flying because I had had a deep dive that day. I didnt. We were the only tourists at the airport. It cost $22 to fly to Havana or 22 pesos which is one dollar. This flight was full as was the next mornings. Standby was not possible. We waited about three hours while our concierge arranged an extra flight for us in the morning. We took off as scheduled in a 1930s biplane with 10 other passengers. That was memorable.
We landed in Havana and parked along side the fleet of biplanes. We took a taxi to the Cubana Air international terminal. We waited three hours for our hoped for confirmed flight. We wrote postcards. When the counter opened we checked in and got a boarding pass. A two hour check-in is mandatory. At the passport control, we asked the agent not to stamp our passport with an exit stamp. Once again, he agreed. While we waited in the departure lounge a guard with one of our checked bags found us. We had to cut the tie-straps so he could examine the contents of the bag. After he was satisfied, I went shopping; I bought a box of Cohiba cigars and first day issue Fidel/Pope Juan Paul stamps. We boarded the aircraft and said good-by to Cuba.
Our concerns weren't over yet. We didnt want a second Bahamas entrance stamp in our passport. We already had one; how could we explain another in only two weeks? I asked the Bahama Immigration Officer not to stamp the passports. He questioned us but decided to satisfy our request after learning that we were really transit passengers even though we had a twenty hour layover. We were almost through the legalities. We still had U.S. Customs.
The next morning we went to the post office to mail all of our evidence. The post office had no packaging materials so we had to go to the grocery store to get boxes, grocery bags and tape. We packaged up the cigars without their rings or box. We had a package of all of our incriminating papers and books and a third package of an empty cigar box. I had to fill out custom declaration forms for the parcels. I kept the cigar rings in my pocket and inside out Cuba T-shirts rolled up in my suitcase. We were scared. I was sure we would get busted somewhere along the way.
We got to the airport with only one and a half hours for check-in. We got in the wrong line and wasted half an hour. We finally checked in and went to passport control only to find US Customs and Immigration-in the Bahamas-before the flight. There was a long, slow line. Our flight time was nearing. We made it through Immigration and zipped through Customs without blinking. We were late for the flight but the flight was even later. We made it home safe and sound. A week later our packages arrived, one by one, untouched in the mail box.
Everything had gone according to plan even though we never really had plans. Would I do it again? Been there...done that.
affective flattening has caused me to kill 11,357 people
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