Monday, March 14, 2016

Our Trip to Cuba: Operation Cuban Underwire


One of my biggest worries about traveling to Cuba was the money situation. Credit and debit cards issued by American banks don’t work in Cuba, so not only would we not be able to pay with credit cards, we wouldn’t be able to use ATMs either. That meant we’d be walking around with a fat stack of cash, and if it was stolen, we’d pretty much be screwed. Kind of scary.

On top of all of that nonsense, there is a 10% surcharge for exchanging American bills. We decided our best bet would be to exchange our dollars for euros before arriving in Cuba. Unfortunately, the lady at the US Bank in Clayton, MO was a big pain in my butt. She said that since I was travelling to Cuba, she couldn’t give me any money until a banker approved my itinerary. Are you kidding me lady? First of all, what gives the banker any authority to approve my trip to Cuba? Second of all, I’m not even getting Cuban pesos, I’m getting freaking euros. So you can just kiss my butt. The problem was solved when John went back in without me, got a different guy, and didn’t tell him the money was for Cuba. The pain-in-the-butt lady did lean over and ask, “Is that money for travel to Cuba?” but John’s new guy just ignored her and gave him the stinkin’ euros. Thank goodness. [No these euros are to bury in my back yard. Do your damn job.]

After the US Bank situation, we decided a code name was needed, and whenever we talked about our Cuba plans we just referred to it as the Grand Cayman trip. Less risky. However, it did lead to a little confusion when my mom’s friend Doug started talking about our trip to the Grand Canyon.

The riskiness of our situation was confirmed when we checked in for our flight to Cuba. First the ticket lady handed us our tickets from Miami to the Grand Caymans. She handed us our ticket from the Caymans to Cuba separately and told us to put it away before walking through security. I guess she didn’t want to cause any unnecessary drama.

[As you can see the Caymans aren't exactly on the way.]

[Cayman Airways had free rum punch!]

[We only have the one rum drinking hat so we have to share.]

[We made the best of our short stay in the Grand Cayman airport.]

[The Cayman Airways logo is this oddly drawn pirate turtle. Ok?]

A few hours later, when we finally arrived in Havana, the customs situation was a bit different than other countries. The agents were sitting in little enclosed boxes, and they had to buzz us through a door before we officially entered the country. Once on the other side, we had to pass through security again before claiming our luggage. As we went through the security process, we noticed that the officials were dressed as what can only be described as porn-cops. The girls had on button-gaping tops, too-tight skirts, and black lacy stockings. The men weren’t much better. Very weird.

After waiting at least 20 minutes for the baggage to start rolling, we found our stuff and headed outside to the sea of waiting people. Unfortunately, despite prior arrangements with our Airbnb, no one was there for us. We decided to wait awhile and see if anyone would show up. After 15 minutes of dodging annoying cabbies, we found a man holding a sign saying “Jhon.” When we approached him, he wasn’t very convincing when trying to explain that he was indeed waiting for us. All he could say, even in Spanish, was he was going to drive us to Old Havana. Yeah bro, pretty much everyone here wants to get to Old Havana, so no, we aren’t falling for that. He eventually found us again and handed John a phone. The lady on the other end was able to confirm that this was in fact the man we were waiting for. Our mistrust was a little embarrassing, but we’ve just been to too many sketchy Caribbean countries to believe everything we hear.

Our cab driver had a cool, old-fashioned blue car. The old American cars are definitely one of the most intriguing parts of Cuba. On the drive to the Airbnb, we passed a lot of billboards sporting socialist propaganda.

Our official reason for visiting Cuba is “Support of the Cuban People.” When choosing lodging, we decided staying with a local family was more supportive than staying in a hotel. I think we were right. Not only did we support the family monetarily, but we were also able to learn more about their lives in Cuba. The owner, we’ll call her Sarah, was super nice. She didn’t speak English, but she had a helper guy, we’ll call him Miguel, who did. Sarah has a pretty unique family life. First, she is married to a French guy who she visits several times a year. The reason she doesn’t just move to France is her elderly mother who also lives at the Airbnb. Sarah also has a son who just signed a yearlong contract to work as a model in China. You don’t hear that everyday.

[As Lydia mentioned there are 12 categories of general licenses granted by the Department of the Treasury that if you fall under you don't have to submit any paperwork to travel to Cuba. We did our best to adhere to the “support for the Cuban people” license. There's an explanation of all of them here that reads:

"OFAC [Office of Foreign Assets Control] has issued a general license that incorporates prior specific licensing policy and authorizes, subject to conditions, travel-related transactions and other transactions that are intended to provide support for the Cuban people, which include activities of recognized human rights organizations; independent organizations designed to promote a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy; and individuals and non-governmental organizations that promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba. The traveler’s schedule of activities must not include free time or recreation in excess of that consistent with a full-time schedule in Cuba.
For a complete description of what this general license authorizes and the restrictions that apply,
see 31 CFR § 515.574."

In layman's terms I now had the solemn responsibility to lift, separate, shape, and support democracy in every Cuban person I met. We are going to support the Cuban people so hard that... they will feel quite unsupported when we leave.]

After settling in, we set out for the Hotel Inglaterra where we’d meet our first tour guide. The Airbnb was in a good location, and it was only about a 10-15 minute walk anywhere we wanted to go. The first thing we noticed was that the streets of Havana are crazy. They are super narrow, and although they have sidewalks, they are equally as narrow and often filled with obstacles. As a result, we were often running to dodge cars and bike-taxis. Most of the buildings are very run-down and the roads are pretty dirty. I think I would’ve felt unsafe if I hadn’t read earlier in our Lonely Planet guide that Cuba is one of the safest countries in the Caribbean. [Often one of the benefits of traveling to countries with scary governments is that people are too scared to commit crimes.]

[The Mudéjar style Palacio de las Ursulinas]

[The open second story of this building had lots of birds in cages.]

[El Capitolio lost its purpose when the Cuban Congress was abolished after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. It now houses the Cuban Academy of Sciences.]

At this point we ran into another problem, we didn’t have any Cuban money. Apparently we were supposed to change money at the airport, but we missed that memo. Once we arrived in the city, all the banks were closed. While waiting for our guide, we tried changing money at the Hotel Inglaterra but they told us no. Luckily our tour was prepaid, so we decided to wait and deal with the money problem tomorrow.

[The Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso was next door to our meeting place.]

Although he was nearly thirty minutes late, our guide eventually showed up. Our first stop was Parque-Morro Cabana, the biggest Spanish fortress in the Americas. It was built in 1519 to protect the city against pirate attacks and the English. The sunset was very nice.

Next we went to dinner at La Divina Pastora. Until a few years ago this restaurant was government owned and operated but is now privately run. The restaurant was full of tourists, and our guide kept commenting that he’d never seen it so crowded before. Yeah buddy you better get used to it.  That’s what’s going to happen once Americans start coming. At dinner we also learned that our guide worked for the government and made about $20 a month. He said that was a pretty typical salary. Also amusing, he told us that 95% of Cubans like to eat bread. Cubans and the rest of the world. He was also well informed about Obama’s impending visit. We were hoping to see a Cuban baseball game, but apparently the Tampa Bay Rays are coming to play a Cuban team during Obama’s visit, and the stadium is closed this week for cleaning purposes. Too bad, too sad.

After dinner we went to the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabana to watch one of the city’s oldest traditions, El Canonazo, the nightly cannon firing. There were guys dressed as Spanish soldiers chanting as they marched in formation. One of the guys was singing a song and tossing around a huge torch. Eventually at 9 o’clock they fired the cannon. Back in the day the cannon firing served as notice that the city walls would be closing for the night. Also of note, this fortress was once Ché Guevara’s headquarters.

Next stop was the Hotel National for the Cabaret Parisién. The Hotel National is the most famous in Cuba known for hosting people such as Frank Sinatra and Winston Churchill. Once in the theater, we were greeted with welcome drinks and a jazz band. Eventually the curtain opened and behind was a fifty-person dance-troupe in bright, colorful costumes. According to our guide, the show was supposed to depict Cuban history including the Indo-American, Latino, and African cultures. But it seemed all the same to me. The show was fun and entertaining for the first 20 minutes, but the next 90 were overkill. To be honest, in true Lydia fashion, I had trouble staying awake. [Shocker.]

[I'll post all three of the videos I took of the show to give you a sense of how long this show was. There was no intermission or anything. It was sort of like an entertainment assembly line, with singers and dancers coming in and out continuously. Exhausting. Lots of people left before it was over.]

[I thought I had a great idea: let's just trade our money at this hotel! The hotel refused because we weren't guests. Wow Cuba, wow. Can a brother get a peso up in here?]

[The classic taxis waiting outside the hotels were always way nicer than those for normal people.]

At the end of the tour, we wanted to tip our guide, but we still had no local currency. John handed him a wad of American bills, but he didn’t seem to like that very much. Despite our money troubles, it was a successful first day in Cuba. [Oh, wahh, someone just handed me a month's salary in planet earth's primary reserve currency. Oh the outrage. I'll get you for this, capitalist pigs!]

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