I relieved myself for what was maybe the fifth time in a week. I'd never needed to pee in Cuba; any liquid entering my body immediately came out on my skin in my body's pitiful attempt at staying cool. One soap dispenser was stocked, miraculously, and smelled strongly of gummy bears. I looked at the dirt falling away from my hands, dripping in clumps into a bright white sink and looked at myself in the mirror. Eyes drooping and flanked by sleep, underlined by dark half-circles, an unruly mustache and dehydrated lips. Smudges of dirt and oil matched the mud under this man's fingernails that wouldn't wash away with the candy soap, and the vague smell of crowded people in summer was half masked by a pungent dab of Tiger Balm. Behind those eyes, an expression of exasperation and unforgiving defeat.
A voice began echoing into the restroom from the PA outside in a dialect of Spanish I could hardly understand.
"Ladies and gentlemen passengers, flight 1203 from Santiago to Havana has been delayed until 10:30 PM. Boarding will begin at 10 PM. Thank you." Only ten minutes ago, the flight had been canceled on the departure schedule due to overbooking and a shortage of planes; the moment the announcement was over, I sighed with relief.
Taking a moment to breathe and collect my wits, I hit the button on a hand dryer and it coughed a bit of hot air before falling back to sleep. The tap water on my hands had already been replaced with sweat. In the mirror, the man was now speaking.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"Nothing, I guess. I've had a stressful week," I replied. I watched as another tear of sweat fell down from the elastic lining of the man's hat to the tip of his bright red nose. "I need to get out of this country." He cocked a half smile and leaned in.
"Let's here it, then."
Without much of a plan and with even less notice, I bought a ticket directly from NYC to Cuba. Given recent political developments, there was no sure future for legal travel between our two countries, I had some free time and extra cash, and it was guaranteed to be a unique, educational experience that I could share with others. The day after finishing up a teaching job at the University of Iowa, I made my way for Chicago to fly cheap to NYC, visit an old friend, and then I was off. Suddenly, the pace of my life increased tenfold and would not slow down for the next eight days.
Arriving at the airport with little time to spare, every check-in desk I visited refused to print my boarding pass.
"We can't find your reservation. Are you sure you booked a ticket?" the third attendant to try helping me said.
"I'm sure. I've got the receipt here," I said, holding up my phone.
"Well, where are you going?"
"Cuba." Her face suddenly became animated with understanding and she pointed vigorously toward the opposite end of the terminal.
"There's a Cuba check-in that direction, mijo! Hurry!" I rolled my eyes and hurried over to the Cuba Check-in Area, which is apparently a thing. Oh, and there's a fee for your visa of $75, and it's just a loose sheet of paper that you have to keep track of apart from your passport.
When traveling to Cuba at this point, you have to choose one of twelve "Pre-approved reasons" for your trip. These include:
1. Family visits
2. Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
3. Journalistic activity
4. Professional research and professional meetings
5. Educational activities
6. Religious activities
7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
8. Support for the Cuban people
9. Humanitarian projects
10. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
11. Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
12. Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.
When booking a ticket to Cuba, you will be asked (as of July 2017) to choose one of these reasons for your travel, and that information will be provided to customs and the airline on which you're traveling. I chose to go for "Journalistic activity," though at this point there is no procedure for verifying your reason for travel, so if you're not a full-time journalist or professional researcher, don't worry. Many thousands of Americans are still traveling to Cuba.
Having done some preliminary research, I knew to take out cash before leaving. Unfortunately, American debit and credit cards still do not work in Cuba, even though Mastercard was authorized to function in Cuba during the Obama administration. There are some complications here for Americans which make the process a bit of a headache, so if you plan on traveling to Cuba, this is what you need to know.
Cuba has two currencies, and, in effect, two economies. Since the average income in Cuba for someone who does not work with tourists is less than a dollar a day, tourists have been given their own currency called el peso convertible ("Convertible Peso"), the abbreviation for which is CUC. One convertible peso is equivalent to one US dollar. Converting to this currency from US dollars, however, incurs a 10% charge off the top. You lose that 10% outright. Additionally, there's a 3% conversion fee, which means that it's actually a much better idea to convert from EUR or basically any other major currency if you're able to find it before leaving the US. Here's a conversion sheet I worked out while waiting for my flight:
Because conversion fees at the airport were extremely high, I actually held onto my US dollars and opted not to convert them to EUR first. Because I had $621 US, I was able to convert to about 540 CUC when I arrived in Havana (although I didn't convert it all at once). Thankfully, it's not nerve-wracking to carry hundreds of dollars in cash in a country you've never been to at all!
<iframe src="https://giphy.com/embed/yr7n0u3qzO9nG" width="480" height="327" frameBorder="0" class="giphy-embed" allowFullScreen></iframe><p><a href="https://giphy.com/gifs/marvel-cinematic-universe-mcu-pietro-maximoff-yr7n0u3qzO9nG">via GIPHY</a></p>
The next step in converting money in Cuba is to get CUP, which are referred to as la moneda nacional ("the National Currency"), or Cuban pesos. 1 CUC is worth 25 CUP, but again, you are charged a conversion fee of 4% for converting from one to the other, meaning you'll only receive 24 CUP for every CUC. While this sounds like a bad deal, for reasons that will become clear later, having both CUC and CUP is in your best interest.
Cash in hand, I landed in Cuba and walked out into a tropical area with intense heat and humidity. Following the other tourists, we stood in line and watched a video on loop about Raul Castro's recent political achievements. Everything up through customs was pretty quiet. At this point, I could only recognize two other backpackers, and the rest of the passengers looked like urbanite families on vacation.
The money conversion office is near the exit to the airport, and it's the last bastion of "peace" you'll have before walking out into a crowd of taxi drivers shouting "Colectivo! Colectivo! Friend, where you go?" There are, unfortunately, no buses directly from the airport. Employees take their own employee-specific but to the airport every day, and tourists wishing to take buses will need to hike about a mile from the airport to board a bus (line 12 or 16 from two different locations). Since I had no map and no internet access, I budgeted for a taxi ride directly from the taxi to the door of my hostel, which should have run about 25 CUC, according to some friends who had previously traveled to Cuba.
A large man with a bald head, white button-up and dark pants approached me while I was observing the mayhem that was 100 drivers calling out to tourists at random.
"Taxi! Taxi! Where you go?"
I gave him the address in Spanish.
"Oh, you speak Spanish, huh?"
"Yeah. How much is the taxi?" I asked.
"No, thanks." I started walking away and he called after me loudly.
"What price do you want?"
"20 CUC is okay."
"25 door to door, from here to your hostel. I know where it is," he said. I mulled it over a bit and nodded. "Wait here," he said turning around, "my friend will come find you. You pay now." I raised my eyebrow.
"I pay when I get there."
He huffed angrily.
Many businesses in Cuba tend to be illegitimate, and the taxi industry is no different. Official, government-run taxis have a set price they cannot legally stray from for transport from the airport to the city, but many people driving cars that looked like they were from the 50's were picking people up in droves for negotiated prices. Someone in a dark red car pulled up to me and the man I'd talked to before ushered me inside, immediately turning back to the crowd of incoming clients to fill up his cars.
I relayed the address of my hostel to the driver, who remained silent for the first few minutes of our ride through palm tree-lined highway and neighborhoods of battered concrete and tin roofs. Initially, I was reminded of a more lush version of rural Cambodia. Remembering the reason I'd come here in the first place, I started asking questions.
"Have you traveled much in Cuba?" I softballed.
"Not really. I'm from here. From Havana. Are you from Spain?"
"Ah, an American. I have a brother in Florida. I'd like to go there some day."
"I've never been, but I've heard it's a good place to retire." He didn't get the joke. "Is the weather always like this?" I asked, already drenched in sweat.
"Oh, yeah. It's not as bad after September, but it's always warm." He turned the radio up and didn't make another attempt at communicating. On our way to the city, I was assured by every billboard that socialism was going to vindicate my suffering and that Fidel lived on in all of us: "Socialism forever!" "I am faithful, I am Fidel" (Yo soy fiel, yo soy Fidel) "No one will surrender, we swear it!"
Once at the hostel, pointed at the building I needed to enter and let me out. I handed him the cash and walked inside a poorly lit, decaying hallway. At the end of the hall was a room full of junk, only mildly obscured by lightly frosted glass. If the hall was any indication of the state of the building, the elevator seemed designed to scare away intruders. Making my way up the stairs instead, the rest of the building seemed to be in decent condition, and when I checked in with the hostel manager in her apartment, everything seemed to be in much better shape. A English man living in Dubai (which, by the way, is the most cosmopolitan city in the world with 87% foreigners) was staying in my room and offered to show me around the city for the afternoon, and off we went.
Havana (or Habana, depending who you talk to) is the capital city and economic center of the country, but is not the cultural capital. In reality, it's comprised of 3 distinct parts: Old Havana, comprised of colonial style buildings from the 16th century and heavily damaged by hurricanes, age, and constant neglect; Vedado, the new metropolitan and "affluent" section of the city where most of the tourist accommodations are (and where I was staying); and the residential areas surrounding the other two, more interesting parts of the city. I say Vedado is the affluent part of Havana, but keep in mind that this term has limited applicability in a country aiming to be communist.
As we walked the streets of Vedado and transitioned into Old Havana, I could have believed we were wandering into another country. There were plenty of people on the streets, but they didn't seem to be doing much of anything; most people in the city bits were standing outside their doors and staring idly at traffic.
Every few seconds, someone sitting on a curb or standing in the shade of an old tree would call after us asking if we wanted taxis. Some young men were pedaling along on a covered bike, carrying one or two people in a back seat. I couldn't imagine doing physical work in the suffocating heat. Many people were just sitting on benches in plazas with their phones, or hanging out with their neighbors in front of ramshackle doors and windows barred with rusted iron.
"Why are they all gathered in the park and just sitting on their phones?" I asked my new friend.
"Oh, there's only wifi in public parks here," he said. "You have to get a prepaid card for a login, and then you go to a park to use the internet."
"That's weird. Where do you get the cards?"
"Yesterday I got one around here somewhere, but all these streets look the same... It's supposed to be $1.50 an hour but people will overcharge you if they're selling it on the street. They like to take just handfuls of them from the store and sell them to tourists for free money." Another passerby asked us if we needed a taxi. We waved him away and found a woman selling bottled water out of her home, her young children running around inside next to a fan. Most homes had their doors and windows open to encourage what little possible air flow they could get.
We continued through Old Havana, passing by El Capitolio, a large gubernatorial building-turned-museum-but-currently-under-construction, and came into a very European style plaza lined with tourist restaurants and crowned in the middle by a statue of a naked, bald woman holding a giant fork and riding an enormous rooster.
"What. Is. That," I laughed, running over with my camera. On further inspection, she was wearing shoes. At least her ankles weren't visible; that would be scandalous.
"I'm not sure. No one seems to know why this is here or what it means," my friend responded.
"How long have you been here? Also, what's your name?" It's funny. When you go backpacking and meet people in hostels, it's not really imperative to know someone's name before you go out exploring. What's important is the stories you share, your personalities, and what you decide to do that day.
"Brandon. Nice to meet you." The woman with the giant fork seemed unamused.
"There's a chocolate museum here," he pointed out a shop with a queue trailing out into the street as we walked. "Best chocolate milk I've had in my whole life. And it's cold." He wiped of trail of sweat from his forehead and took a deep breath. "You can smell the chocolate all the way from here. I don't really feel like waiting in line, though. You hungry?"
"I could eat."
"There's a hotel here with a restaurant at the top, it's really cool. Want to go?"
Three blocks up calle Mercaderes we were suddenly in a luxurious, old hotel populated by fans, men and women in white shirts and black pants and vests, and sweaty tourists trying not to give up on life. A bar sat in the middle of a large, open air foyer and an old man sporting a grey mustache watched passersby as he spot-cleaned cocktail glasses. There were at least ten entrances to this room, flanked by dark green doors and paneled windows, marble floors and house plants posted at every door like guards against the urban decay just outside. To the right, we stood in queue for an elevator that looked like it might be a hundred years old. A middle-aged man in full elevator-operator garb greeted us, ushered us inside, and cranked the door shut before taking us up, and as soon as we'd passed to the second floor, it was evident only the first floor was actually maintained.
"Ernest Hemingway lived here," Evan said.
"Oh, that's this hotel?" I imagined what it would be like to live here in the 1930s, and what the hotel might have looked like when it was new. The walls here were white and drab; not a single light was on in the whole building, but there was enough sunlight coming in that they weren't necessary. It didn't seem like a particularly good place to write, until we made it to the top floor.
"Watch your step," the operator warned us.
We walked out into the scorching sunlight to find a view of the city, all faded red and grey and sunbleached leather pastels. Just beyond was the coastline of the bay. I laughed with joy.
"It's beautiful!" Maybe if I had more time and cash, I'd come back some day to write here. Havana had all the views of a city with none of the noise from up here, and the rooftop provided a solid separation from the melancholy below. The first breeze I'd felt since coming to Cuba graced us with a bit of relief and we sat to enjoy a couple of drinks. Oddly, the only food option under $10 was a plate of spaghetti for $6. Our waitress made it a point not to talk to us beyond taking our order, which seemed a bit strange, and when the bill came back at $33 I nearly fell over in my chair.
"That's more than a month's salary for two meals," I noted.
"It is kinda fucked," Evan said. In front of us were two hollowed-out pineapples filled with coconut milk and rum, and half-finished mojitos sweating nearly as much as we were. He looked around, stuck his fork into his spaghetti and continued. "It's quite bizarre, yeah? The government here takes care of everything. Everyone gets the food they need, free education, free healthcare. No one is homeless and everyone has a job, but everything is on a totally different level here." I didn't know enough yet to make a thoughtful response.
Taking another sip from my pineapple drink and looking around, it became uncomfortably clear I was out of my element. The other customers were all English and German speakers, of a certain age and with their families, dressed in flower-printed vacation clothes and talking about how much money they'd spent on the rooms. Not a single local was here eating. The wait staff stood stoically near the bar, watching us. I wanted to ask how long they'd been working that day, when their breaks were, what their home life was like, how they'd landed a job at such an exclusive location with access to tourist capital. And I wondered how the people standing outside their broken down homes peddling bottled water and piles of stolen $1.50 wifi cards felt about it.