Sunday, February 24, 2019

First Stop, Havana Go Go!

When looking at accommodations for our trip to Havana, we knew we wanted to stay in a Casa Particular, which is similar to a bed and breakfast.  We wanted to be out of the main tourist areas, and more among the locals, so we chose a quaint little casa in the neighborhood of Vedado.  The house is owned by a wonderfully helpful Italian man named Luca, but is ran by an older Cuban couple who live at the house, clean the rooms, make meals if requested, etc.

The house is called El Almendron Rosado, and it had great reviews on both Trip Advisor and Expedia.  Once we booked we communicated with Luca a few times, and he gave us a bunch of excellent tips and information, told us he could exchange money for us at the same rate as the bank, and could arrange transportation to and from the Casa.  There are two different types of currency in Cuba, one for tourists (CUC) and one for locals (CUP), and the currency can't be purchased outside of the country.

When we arrived at the Casa, after midnight on Saturday night, we were greeted by the lovely couple who showed us to our room.  There are three guest rooms at El Almendron Rosado, and each has it's own bathroom.  We were given two keys, one to the house and one to our room.

Just outside our room was a little patio.  The woman who lives in the home made us breakfast one morning.  Her and her husband don't speak English, but we did our best to communicate with them in Spanish, and they were so helpful and sweet.

They confirmed our taxi to go back to the airport for us, and were even outside at 4:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, waiting to make sure the taxi arrived, and to see us off.
On the roof of the house is a seating area with a beautiful view of the moon and stars.  We often went up there once we were back at the Casa for the evening.

In the mornings Luca would be at the house to see if there was anything we needed, draw us maps, give us recommendations, make reservations, and just visit with us for a bit.  Most days we chatted in the kitchen with him for about a half an hour, before going on our way.

The neighborhood of Vedado is bustling with locals out and about, chickens and roosters roaming yards and the street, dogs barking like crazy, music, late night parties, clothes on the line, people visiting from one open window to the next, and a neighborly feeling.

Vedado is considered more of an affluent neighborhood.  The thing is, life is difficult in Havana.  Even in the affluent areas, the majority of homes are crumbling, the roads, sidewalks, and buildings have not been updated since the 1950s, and people struggle to get the basic necessities.

We met many different people, from those who have never been outside of Havana, to Canadians who moved to Havana, and have been there for over 20 years, to Luca who has been in Havana for three years, since he married a local.  Sadly, the consensus among all of them was that they want out.

"We need the help of Canada and the United States," one man told us.  He has lived in Havana all his life, and gives tours in an old car - one of the more lucrative jobs in Havana.  He said he didn't care how cold it was in Canada, he'd still like to move there.  "Maybe I'll move away one day, and never come back," he commented.  It was painful to hear.  The island is beautiful, the people are educated; there is just so much potential for life to be amazing there.  The people are proud of their country, but know they do not have the basic rights that they deserve, and want better for themselves and their families.  The education is free in Cuba, even up to a PhD, however it's not uncommon to see someone with a PhD driving a taxi, as taxi drivers make more than doctors, lawyers, judges, etc.  A doctor's salary is about $30 US a month, which makes affording daily life a challenge.

Another challenge is the lack of supplies in Cuba.  Things are scarce, and all the grocery stores, convenience stores, and gas stations we went into had really bare shelves, with a minimal selection of products.  "It's hard to run a business here," one Canadian explained.  Some days he can find bread in the stores, and other times there is a shortage.  It's hard to have a diner that serves mostly sandwiches, when you can't find bread.  "I think I've put in my time here," he said, with a sad look in his eyes, as though he were letting go of his hope that things would improve, that he had held for the 26 years that he has lived there.

Luca, the Casa owner, echoed the same sentiment when he explained how sometimes he can't find eggs for weeks.  "How do I explain to my guests that I can't get eggs for breakfast?"  The scarcity goes for all products.  One day there might be a bunch of cheese in a store (mostly gouda), but one person will buy it all up, and sell it at a premium on the black market, and then when other restaurant owners go to the store to buy supplies, there is no cheese. 

Toilet paper and soap are hard to come by in Cuba, and it is very rare to find it in a restaurant or pub washroom, even in a nice place.  It's actually rare for there to even be a toilet seat, and there definitely won't be hot water.  We went into some gorgeous, very expensive hotels, and even some of those did not have soap or toilet paper in the lobby washrooms.  Luckily our room at the Casa always had toilet paper and soap; when we were out and about we carried our own with us.  One man explained to us that even if the business owner put soap and paper out, it would disappear right away, as people will take these things for their homes.

Most people we met worked very long hours (typically 11:00 - 11:00), with no days off.

Some were saving to move out on their own (although all Cubans have a home, most live with multiple families and generations in one home).  Others were just trying to feed their family, and others were saving to leave the country.  "My dream is to fly," one young worker told us after we passed him in the street for the second time in two days, and stopped to chat again.  The first time we met him he was trying to get us to come into the restaurant where he worked, but we had just finished eating.  We asked him if he knew where we could buy internet cards.  Cubans have had internet on their phones for about six months now, but it's accessed through these cards that you can buy in little street kiosks ($2 for one hour) after showing ID.  I'm assuming all the kiosks were closed at this time, so he told us to go down a block or so and around the corner to a house, and peek in the window and ask for his grandma by name.  He said she'd sell us a card.  Sure enough, we peeked in this window ...

A woman was just setting dinner on the table, and a man was watching TV on the couch next to the table.  "Uh, Evelyn?" we inquired.  An older lady looked up, and walked over.  "Do you have internet cards?" I asked.  She seemed a bit surprised, as I don't think too many tourists come peeking through her window, but she lit up when we told her we wanted to buy five cards.  She opened a little makeup bag and pulled out a stack of them, sold us five, we tipped her, she blew a kiss, and we were on our way.

The next time we saw the young man outside the restaurant he remembered us.  He asked what Canada was like, and said he'd like to make it to Montreal one day.  We wished him well, and told him we think he'll make it.  "See ya in another life brother," Christopher quoted from Lost, as we bid farewell.  I have a weird feeling that we'll run into this young guy in Canada one day.  I hope we do.

The people in Havana are very nice, and super helpful.  One man handed his cell phone to us when we weren't sure how to use the payphone, numerous people gave us directions (a lot speak English), and this band even invited Christopher on stage to play a song with them.

We were having a burger at Bar Monserrate, and were enjoying the band, so we tipped them and bought a CD.  The conga drummer asked Christopher if he played, and insisted he come up and play a song.  It was super fun!

Havana is very safe, even late at night, on poorly lit streets, and down back alleys.  It's busy, loud, and littered, but it's incredibly safe.  There are no weapons in the streets; not even the police officers carry guns.  No matter where we went, or who we talked to, we never felt unsafe.  The scariest part for me were the many, many stray dogs and cats roaming the streets everywhere.  They didn't bother anyone though, and were just searching the city for scraps to eat.

When booking this trip we weren't looking for a luxurious, relaxing vacation.  We were looking for an experience, and an education, and that's exactly what we got.  We saw some stuff that broke our hearts, and heard some stories that were difficult to hear.  We shared handshakes and hugs, smiles, and words with some very hard working, very resilient, and very happy people.  Cuban people have heart and soul, and they try to make you feel at home, even in a place that is very different from your home. 

More to come in the next post ...


Lisa from Lisa's Yarns said...

I've been looking forward to your trip recap. For the longest time, Americans were not able to go to Cuba unless you did so illegally by going through Mexico and not having them stamp your passport. I had such a fascination with the country for awhile that I read multiple memoirs written by people who lived there. It was so sad to hear about how hard it is to get the basics one needs to live. It's just such a sad situation. I hope that things improve for the people of Cuba but it's hard to envision how it can change as much as it needs to. :(

Your experience there kind of reminds me of my time in the Dominican Republic. I went there in 2006 to visit a friend in the Peace Corp so it wasn't the fancy resort experience most have when they visit the DR. Instead I stayed in her campo in the mountains. The previous PC volunteer's project was bringing running water to the campo. My friend's project was building stoves so the women wouldn't have to cook over open fires (cooking over open fires is very bad for a person when you do that day in and day out for many years). The people in her campo were so poor but they had such a fighting spirit. I wanted to kiss the ground when I came back to the US. It made me appreciate the things we take for granted - like hot water and reliable electricity/internet.

Amber said...

Wow, such an amazing and educational post - thank you for sharing! I love that you guys did this trip this way and focused on going for an experience and not a luxurious vacation. It is so so interesting to read, but also heartbreaking. I hope things change for the Cuban people one day.