I didn’t know a lot about Cuba before I started looking into it for our trip. I knew what we all learned in history, I knew it was a Communist country, ruled by Fidel and now Raul Castro, and that a lot of people tried to escape. Then Pope Francis visited and everything seems to have changed.
Before I begin telling you what is going on with our building project….or more accurately, what is not going on, I’d like to share with you our impressions of Cuba. John was there when he was in the Coast Guard years ago and he’s always wanted to go back. He worked for months to get us permission and to make arrangements for our trip. You probably already know there are twelve acceptable reasons Americans can visit Cuba:
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.
It’s even easier now, just a few months later, because the ban on direct flights has been lifted. We weren’t going with a tour group, we were going on our own, for business purposes. John is an international IT consultant and, as a result of our visit I’m happy to say we are now doing business in Cuba! (See his site here.)
I was a little worried about traveling to Cuba. (Between us friends, I was scared to death.) I’m also a bit of a nervous flyer. (I’m being kind.) And many of the posts I read made it sound like we’d be accosted on every street by beggars and pick-pockets and prostitutes. Theft in the hotel seemed to be a given. Add this to our own ignorance of the place and notions of what it would be like in a country shrouded in mystery, we had no clue what to expect. Thankfully, we were very pleasantly surprised.
Our 5 day trip was only in Havana so I can’t tell you about the rest of the country. I’ve seen a couple of documentaries and also Anthony Bourdain’s show (Parts Unknown) on his travels to Cuba, so I know that in other cities it is quite different. But Havana resembled many other Caribbean countries. Yes some of the buildings were crumbling. Not every building, but many. But there is also construction and new buildings going up. New hotels were being built and some old buildings were getting a much-needed face lift. Yes, a lot of the cars are from the 50′s and 60′s. But not all of them. The taxi driver we became friendly with, Frank, drove an Audi! Also, people were on their cellphones almost as much as we are here in the States. We asked Frank how many people out of 100 have a cell phone, he said 80! Surprising? You bet.
We had a 7 AM flight from Miami and arrived at our hotel (Hotel Nacional) at 10:30 AM. As we expected our room wasn’t ready. So, we walked over to the concierge desk, hoping the woman sitting there spoke some English. She did….as did most everybody we came in contact with – and we booked a two-hour tour around the city in a classic car like typical tourists. What fun!
Here’s a one minute snippet:
Over the next couple of days John had meetings set up, one with a software company, one with the Chamber of Commerce and one with a University professor who is also a consultant. Every one spoke English very well, and they were all very eager and hopeful about doing business with the U.S. And they, along with everybody else we felt comfortable enough to ask, hope the embargo will end soon. We always had this vision of everybody trying to escape, living very scared and oppressed lives, but the truth is people seem happy. That was the most surprising thing we learned about Cuba. They go about their lives, going to jobs, taking their kids to daycare, and even eating dinner out. They have cell phones and although they do not have internet connections in their homes yet, (we hear China is starting to set up some homes with internet on a trial basis) there are internet cafes (okay, not everyone can afford them) and they have areas where there are free wi-fi zones on the weekend. (Those areas get very, very crowded.) Internet connection is allowed in your place of business if it’s for your job. They have many TV channels, (one seems to have baseball on all the time) and they also have “underground” TV, where they pass around flash drives from person to person. (They can watch American movies and Disney shows and cartoons and many American TV shows! They knew all about our presidential candidates and the fact that Rubio doesn’t want to end the embargo! They were very aware of that.)
They all wish they had better economic conditions and that’s the biggest reason people would want to leave. The typical pay check runs from $17 (factory worker, hotel maid) to $30 (doctors and lawyers) a month! People receive rationed food, and they can swap food that they grow. But now people are allowed to start businesses (restaurants or B&Bs) in their homes. And since tourism has become a major source of income, people are opting for jobs such as taxi driver where they can make $30 in just one cab ride or restaurant worker, where tips for a day can equal that monthly pay. With the huge growth in tourism, especially now that restrictions have eased for Americans, our new friends told us people have more hope now for a better life, for more income and yes, for more personal freedom.
The regular Cuban peso is only used by Cubans. Tourists use what is known as a Cuban Convertible Peso (called CUC – pronounced cuke). It is basically one for one, so the Ropa Vieja dish, with salad, rolls and butter, plantains, and rice and beans was $7.50. And it was delicious!
One thing John and I really wanted to do while we were in Cuba was go fishing! I know that’s not on everybody’s to-do list, but we both love to fish and c’mon, we were in Cuba! Where Hemingway used to fish! We tried to book a boat online at the hotel (we could buy internet time – it cost $15 for 12 hours of internet use) but we couldn’t get onto any sites that booked fishing charters. Much later we found out unless they are fishermen or have special permission, Cubans cannot go on boats! So we called our new friend Frank, and he drove us over to the Hemingway Marina to book a charter for the next day.
We were as lucky with the weather that day as we were with the fish!
We caught a small tuna, a bonita, and two large wahoo!
After our boat trip, Frank took us to a store to buy some coffee as souvenirs. There was a store right at the marina – where there was also a woman rolling cigars.
We had a wonderful time. We made new friends and we found out so much about a country that had been frozen in time for more than 50 years. I won’t be so apprehensive next time we go. And yes, there will be a next time.