Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Cuba Trip 2: Beat Obama by a Week

[Apologies but this blog contains over 100 pictures and several videos. You know what? Sorry not sorry. This might be the best trip I've ever been on. Sure, it's a beautiful place and the people are nice. The history is amazing, the relationship with the US is long and fraught with twists and turns. It's been fascinating to see a flawed economic system (as they all are) play out in real life. There's a hint of fake danger on this trip that we might be doing something wrong. On top of it all I felt a profound sense that change is going to come fast and hard to this place and that the moment we are in right now is special and we should soak up as much as we can. So rather than go through the pain of pruning it any further I'll just put you through some pain trying to load it through your series of net tubes. That's a sacrifice I'm comfortable with. Enjoy.]


We woke up early for a full day tour of the city. The ladies at our Airbnb prepared us a huge, delicious breakfast. We started with guava, papaya, watermelon, and banana. After we finished, they brought out a toasted hamburger bun, ham, cheese, and an egg. They also provided fresh pineapple juice, coffee, and milk. Not bad for 5 bucks. According to our Lonely Planet guide, the large breakfast spread offered at hostels often takes the host several hours of shopping and waiting in line to gather. Knowing this, on top of the fact that Cubans often don’t have enough to eat, I felt super bad leaving any food on my plate.

After chowing down our food, we headed back to the Hotel Inglaterra for our city tour. Under the hotel sign we met Julia and Rob, a couple from New Zealand, and another couple from California. A few minutes later our tour guide Skipper also showed up.

[Again we've changed all the Cuban people's names because some of them said some real stuff that I'd like to share and I don't want to get them in trouble. I pretty much kept them out of all the pictures as well which was annoying while I was going through them but there's already a zillion so maybe it's for the best.]

We told her about our money situation – the fact that we still didn’t have any – and she offered to exchange Cuban pesos for American dollars. But, as you know, we didn’t have any dollars. We only had euros! We learned later that she is trying to exchange her Cuban pesos for American dollars in fear that the local currency might fail. Very interesting.

Anyway, our first stop was the José Martí statue in Parque Central. Martí was an important Cuban leader during the Second War of Independence. He was shot and killed charging towards the Spanish line and is viewed as a martyr. In Havana, statues and monuments to Martí are almost as common as statues of Ché Guvera.

Continuing our walk, we passed an awesome looking art deco building. John correctly identified it as an old Barcardi building when he noticed the famous bat displayed on top. It was probably the coolest building in Havana. We especially liked the cool mailbox inside. [I kept my mouth shut about my Bacardi because I didn't want to sound like a stupid alcoholic tourist but I ended up being correct.]

[The Bacardi family initially supported the revolution, but then left the country after all of their assets in Cuba were nationalized. They had the foresight to move their trademarks to the Bahamas years earlier though. We visited Bacardi in Puerto Rico a couple years ago.]

[This old firefighter museum was nearby. Let's be honest, "bombero" sounds way more awesome than "fireman".]

[An interesting effect of Socialism or the Cuban government's policies or whatever was there was a near total lack of advertisement of any kind anywhere. Even this staid "hey comrade there's a place where you can trade money for goods over here" sign was rare.]

We were 5 steps from a 4 story Harris Brothers department store and could barely tell from the outside.

[Inside was pretty typical of stores we saw in Cuba, and this place was the largest and most sophisticated place we saw. It was very "here's the stuff for sale, buy it or don't," in stark contrast to the everyday parade of assaults on one's senses that the US grocery store or mall conjures. Also we noticed that products were usually behind a counter, not within reach of the purchaser. I don't know if that was due to culture or a fear of shoplifting or what.]

[I believe everything used to be behind the counter in US stores back in the day as well. Planet Money has a good story here on the invention of the price tag. Before that you had to negotiate to buy every little thing.]

[People are always telling me, "John, could you make your blog posts longer with more crisscrossing tangents in order to encompass the meandering trail your mind takes through all the nerdy crap you're interested in?"]

[We still didn't have any money but the New Zealanders were very nice and bought us a big bottle of water.]

Next was the Museo de Revolution. In front of the museum we stopped to see a tank that Castro used during the Bay of Pigs. Behind the museum there’s a yard of other artifacts, the most famous being the Granma Boat. According to Wikipedia, the Granma boat “was used to transport 82 fighters of the Cuban Revolution from Mexico to Cuba in November 1956 for the purpose of overthrowing the regime of Fulgencio Batista.” A joke among Cubans is that the Grandma boat is guarded 24-7, so that no one steals it and sails to America.

Here our guide, Skipper, gave us a good overview of Cuban history. Cuban was ruled by Spain from 1492- 1898. After the Spanish-American war, Cuba gained formal independence from the US in 1902, but the US retained the right to intervene in Cuban affairs. Cuba had a series of presidents until Batista came to power in 1940. He held the position until 1944. In 1952 Batista staged a coup and came into power again. Around this time the Cuban middle class became dissatisfied with the high unemployment and political persecution in Cuba. This is where Castro, the Granma boat, and communism come into play.

[We walked past El Floridita where Hemingway apparently liked to hang out.]

After the Museo de Revolution we wandered through Old Havana. While everyone else stopped to look around a craft market, we popped into a little clothing store. I immediately noticed that they only had one of each item. Maybe it was a resale shop? Hard to tell. The clothes were priced the same as you might find in an American mall, which seems unaffordable for a Cuban making the $20 a month government salary.

[There weren't maybe traffic lights of any kind but I liked that this one was animated. We went to a shop in Berlin last year that was devoted to the little man on their walk signs.]

[There were several little makeshift shops crammed into the stairways of apartment buildings. Imagine if you didn't have private businesses for 50 years, then all of the sudden you allowed them again. Where would they all go? People weren't allowed to sell their houses, so it's not like you could just buy a building to set up a business in.]

[Cuba has two monetary systems which isn't confusing at all. Convertible pesos (CUCs) are pegged 1:1 to the US dollar and are generally for use by foreigners. You can only exchange them inside the country. The local people use normal pesos (CUPs). Luckily CUP and CUC sound really similar when spoken out loud. It's fun.]

[Another interesting economic tidbit is many of the lower end eateries just don't have names.]

[People in line waiting to exchange money.]

We still didn’t have money at this point, and we passed a currency exchange, but the line was out the door. Skipper said she’d show us somewhere better to exchange our money later.

Skipper also took us inside a ration shop. Every month each Cuban is allotted a certain amount of rice, beans, sugar, salt, and coffee. The rations aren’t free, but very cheap. Learning more about socialism was definitely a highlight of our visit.

Leaving the ration store we visited a series of plazas. The first was the Plaza de Armas which is paved in wooden bricks. Skipper explained that wood was used in an attempt to quiet the steps and carriages of passers-by.

[One of the hustles in this part of town was while the group was standing and listening to our guide guys would come up next to us and draw quick little caricatures of us and try to get us to buy them. I thought they were kind of cool but I didn't want to encourage them. The California couple bought theirs I believe.]

[We got to see this statue when it was still dirty like real travelers.]

[Obama trying to keep up a week later.]

[It was probably for the best that we had no money because I probably would have been tempted to buy some antique junk. I did spy this old stamp on the ground with my little eye though.]

[This is the Castillo de la Real Fuerza. It's hard to make out in this picture but on top of the little tower on the left side of the picture is a statue of a woman. Wikipedia: "Although the reason for the choice of this figure, called La Giraldilla, is not known, a common suggestion is to honour Inés de Bobadilla, Havana's only female governor, who assumed control from her husband Hernando de Soto when he undertook an expedition to Florida. She spent many years scanning the horizon for signs of his returning ship (unbeknownst to her, he had died). The figure became the symbol of the city of Havana (it features on the Havana Club rum label), and is now held at the City Museum housed in the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales in the Plaza de Armas, while a copy is in place on the watchtower."]

[La Giraldilla on the Havana Club logo.]

Also interesting was the amount of cleaning going on. There was a guy power washing a building and a few others pouring buckets of water over the square’s main statue. All of this was in preparation for Obama’s visit later this week. You wouldn’t want him to have to look at a dirty statue!

[The Obama family visited  La Catedral de la Virgen Maria de la Concepcion Inmaculada in Old Havana on March 20. Late!]

[Street doggin' ain't easy.]

[Is it even any fun to go to a place after I've been there? I dunno, ask Obama.]

After winding our way through several other plazas we eventually stopped at a hotel and exchanged our money. We were rich again! Woo hoo.

Next all seven of us piled into one classic American car. Who knew they were so big? We drove down the famous Malécon and passed the US embassy.

We ate lunch at a local paladar. Paladars are restaurants owned by individuals rather than the government. While we ate, Skipper shared a lot about her life in Cuba. She said that it is very hard. Even with her private tour-guide job, she feels that it’s difficult to get everything she needs. She recently visited a friend in Australia and was hoping to stay permanently. Unfortunately, the Australians sent her back once her visa expired. She said she has many friends who’ve moved to Miami, and she plans to try America next. According the Wet Foot, Dry Foot policy, once a Cuban reaches America, they can stay no-questions asked. It’s easiest to get to the US via the Mexican border, but this trip is very risky. Immigrants from other countries are aware of the policy and will harm/murder Cubans in an attempt to get their IDs.

Skipper also told us about her Comité de Defensa de la Revolución service. The CDR is like a neighborhood watch system. Each neighborhood has its own branch and neighbors take turns being “on watch” from 10pm – 1am. I read that it’s a way for the government to find dissenters. Skipper said that the people on watch are just looking for fights, danger, etc. She said half-jokingly that she just pays someone else to do it for her. [Many of these "jokes" felt awfully truthy to me.]

After lunch we took a ride in a classic convertible. Our driver told us that his car had been passed down from his grandfather, to his father, and then to him. Until 2011 Cubans weren’t allowed to buy or sell cars, so they had to make due with what they had. This led to a lot of ingenuity and car-part building.

[Minutes after I started my cool classic taxi ride did an even older car drive by and ruin it for me.]

[The streets signs were funny because many of them looked handmade.]

We made a stop at the Plaza de Revolution where rallies are sometimes held.

We also stopped at a park outside of the city. There was a group of people holding some sort of Santeria ceremony. Santeria is one of the most practiced religions in Cuba. It’s a combination of Catholicism and native African religions.

We ended the tour sipping drinks at the Hotel National. The back of the hotel had a great view of the water, but strangely there were no boats on the water. Skipper explained that this is because Cubans aren’t allowed on boats because the government is afraid they’ll use them to sail away.

[The National Hotel has seen some action. You can read about the Battle of the Hotel Nacional of Cuba here. It was also the setting for a large meeting of American and Cuban mobsters referred to as the Havana Conference. The conference was alluded to in The Godfather Part II.]

Inside the hotel there's a Cuba Missile Crisis museum.

On the walk back from the tour, John and I stopped for a loaf of bread.

For dinner we had lobster at Restaurant Hanoi. It was delicious and only $15.

After dinner, as we wandered around the city, John commented that Cubans are the best at being poor. They still dance, sing, and have fun despite their daily struggles for food and other necessities. They definitely make the best with what they have.

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