I met my wife Brenda one day after I moved to Costa Rica. I was running away from Finland. I wanted a fresh start and my recent trip to Cuba had sparked an interest in Latin culture.
The year was 2001 and I was in my early twenties. Brenda was a frequent business traveler before meeting me, traveling thru mostly Central and South America. The next 15+ years we have lived and traveled to almost 20 countries. Learning different cultures become our way of life. Since the beginning, I have been talking about Cuba as being so much different than any other place we've ever been. Wanting her to see it too. Finally, things changed.
Last year President Obama opened the travel ban for Americans, if they fell in one of the 12 accepted reasons, journalism being one of them. So we planned a trip for winter of 2017. With the results of the election, we wanted to be back before January 20.
I consider us to be experienced travelers and still, for some reason, planning this trip to Cuba, with the extra layer of unknown, the rules not being that clear or more than that, if anyone was going to check, enforce or even care about the reason for our travel. We had some extra jitters. I was expecting something to hit the fan at all times.
On travel day, we were both definitely nervous. I cannot even remember the last time either of us felt that way. It has been made so easy and convenient that the actual travel is hardly ever exciting anymore. It added the slightest bit of welcomed excitement to our day. What if they won’t let us in? Not having any published work before this.
The entry was easy and convenient — a bit too easy. Even the notoriously unorganized Latin immigration process wasn’t found. We were at the curb outside of the Havana airport with local currency in our pocket stepping into a taxi an hour before our estimated landing time.
We were able to find our first place to stay with no issues. The problem was that no one was home. We were early and they were expecting us at 3 pm instead of 1 pm. So we found a nearby hotel restaurant and were welcomed by a friendly security guard. Brenda was trying to contact our host with her phone but with no luck thanks to a bad connection. Our friend, the security guard, saw us scrambling and explained that we needed to get an internet card in order to use the phone. Those come in rations and were sold out. He happened to mention that there might be some left in the black market and there was a park nearby. So there I went. Scoring my first deal of the trip.
Like always, landing into a Latin country from the dead of winter in Maine has a change of pace. It took getting used to the rhythm, smells and sounds of a country and culture that has been happily stuck in the past for decades. Just in the past fifteen years, they have been able to share information with the outside world. The familiar smell of diesel, the happy horns of friends passing each other, and the Latin beat of music blasting from every single open window that you pass. Humidity and the heat forcing you to slow down, to sit down, to enjoy a cold beer and some live music. Not a bad way to get rid of those jitters.
It is hard not to notice those old American cars, you don’t have to like cars or even old movies, you could care less about history in general, like I do. But there is something that happens when things match. Most of the buildings in Havana were built with a style in mind, just like those old cars, and together they look stunning. A 1953 Chevy Belair rolling down the malecon (a paved public walkway by the ocean) passing those colonial era houses with tall pillars holding second story balconies, everyone just enjoying life. It does not get much more unreal than that. Lucky for us, both, the cars and the old buildings, are being preserved rather than replaced. It makes an old soul like me so happy. Havana seems to try to be still the Havana from the times when money was not an issue.
For a foreigner, traveling to Cuba seems like traveling back in time, Sure, Cubans have access to the Internet by now, it’s just not quite useful yet. (Social media is there, but try to arrange travel plans.) It’s not common enough yet. You cannot buy bus tickets or confirm reservations for your next casa particular (aka the original Airbnb) because most businesses don’t have access to computers or an Internet connection. To travel independently, you still need to rely on their network; and everyone has a personal network.
For me, that is travel and that’s why I love it. To be able to get out of your normal and so-called safe routine and lifestyle. There are plenty of travel agencies who, for a fee, will arrange any excursions you might want, and, of course, any hotel will be happy to take any extra cash you might have to get you a ride or a ticket to a show.
But if you want to have that experience, a small taste of Cuban life, you just have to jump in and let them take you for a ride. Be ready to find the local bus station and spend the day in line to find out that your bus is sold out. Be ready to change your plans on the fly and if you do jump in, you’ll find out that most Cubans are there to help you. Your host family will know a taxi driver. They will know a nice house on the beach and they will let you know what is going on in town.
If you really want to dig in, you should learn the concept of two currencies. In theory, it is easy. Local residents use one and us tourists use another. But, now that independent, non-governmental businesses are allowed, it gets a bit more complicated and fun.
Early 90s Cuba ran out of cash with the fall of the Soviet Union. In order to get some, they were forced to allow foreign businesses to enter the country and acknowledge the U.S. dollar as their second currency. Now, they actually print another Cuban peso that is pegged to the U.S. dollar 1 to 1. Most Cubans now earn in local pesos and can only afford to buy from stores and restaurants geared to locals. Some of the stores will actually let us buy from them too. So all of a sudden your lunch is 25 times cheaper.
So, learn some Spanish, get some local pesos, and enjoy the best Cubano sandwich you will ever have. To be able to get those deals once in a while you will need to negotiate a bit. No, definitely does not mean no. It only means I’ll be calling the shots. Let’s talk. Let’s make a deal. We were able to make some and sometimes we failed. The biggest thrill I got was a simple ride I got at traffic hour, fighting a local person for it.
There aren't enough busses in Havana for everyone, so locals are hitching rides just to get back home. One day I was not willing to pay $10 for a few mile ride with a tourist taxi so wanted to give the local way a shot. After being elbowed(literally) away from a deal for a half an hour I felt that I had learned enough. I did end up beating a local commuter for a ride with a great price. The simple pleasures of life.
The days of needing those skills are getting to be numbered with all of the information transparency. Not actually knowing if there are rooms available, not knowing the current fare for a ride to the next town. It comes down to a game of poker. You just have to find the bluff.
Most travelers think about the change Cuba may have to go through in the near future, in the way of big money harnessing the cute and easy-to-sell qualities from the island for a maximum profit and turning Havana into another Cancun. Taking the money away from the people again, which is of course a real concern. Therefore there is a real interest in going to see it before that happens.
What I’ll hate to see go are the skills once necessary to survive. To be able to pay attention to your surroundings. To be able to live without the absolute truth that you find with your fingertips. To live without your phone and access to the web. The skill of reading a human character. Some might call it the game or a hustle. Cubans still call it life.
And when there is hustle, for some reason it comes with motherly care. For example, we had arranged a room to stay in a town called Trininad. The bus leaving town had broke down and all of those people had to stay for an extra night, returning to their casas. Now the host lady felt obligated to find us a room, which she was able to do, and next morning showed up to see that we were taken care of. The next day we figured out that we should go to the bus station to see if the busses were running again. Of course they were sold out for days by now. So a fellow traveler, a complete stranger offered us information on a house in a fishing village nearby. We ended up learning more about places to see and things to do from people we shared a ride with than any guide book could tell us. In Cuba, you still have to have a conversation in order to find out anything. Google wont help you as much.
People stopped whatever they were doing just give us a hand. They ran extra errands in order to please, to make us feel at home. Hospitality still seems to be alive and well.
Cuba is definitely an easy place to travel. With even a little bit of prior travel experience, a few words of Spanish and a little bit more than a student budget, you can make it happen and have a great time doing it. We spend just over $100 a day including flights. If you want to, and you are willing, you can still escape into the past, forget everything that you need a break from, end up in trouble and figure your way out. If nothing else, that should help you to forget about your inbox or other pressing rich white people problems you might be suffering from. In our opinion it is by far the safest Latin country you’ll travel to and you will find people who love their country and their home. People who are curious and excited. People who show their love through their animated way to live, to dance, their story. They just love to show it, whatever it may be.