Billy's first plane ride and our magical time in Havana
28.04.2016 - 02.05.2016 30 °C
Despite my parents giving Billy and I money towards tickets for Christmas to go to Cuba, we had never found the ideal time to actually go. Billy and I were at a local pool bar in Cabarete when we decided to start placing some high stakes bets on the outcomes of our amateur games. We often settle an argument with a game of pool, so it isn't an uncommon thing. More often than not though, it is about who gets to give a massage or who will cook dinner. This day however, I decided to throw down the idea that if Billy lost we would go to Cuba for our anniversary. I don't know if he lost on purpose - because he certainly doesn't usually lose, but he lost...
So a few days later, we booked and paid for our tickets and began to prepare for what would be our first international travels together - and Billy's first time off the island and in an airplane EVER! I think everyone else was more excited for him than he was, either that or he was trying to be too nonchalant and cool about the whole thing. He did swiftly kick the guy out from the window seat that Billy had sweetly smiled for at checkin, and then proceed to stare out of the window as we headed to Cuba by way of Panama.
It was ridiculous to fly such a short distance, what would usually be a 2 hour flight, via Panama. It meant that we took nearly 11 hours to arrive! But by now I have well and truly learned cheap flights is a great way to keep costs low in order to spend longer on the road. We landed in Cuba with only a slight hiccup - they nearly didn't let Billy in! They called secondary immigration to interrogate him.... Oh, how I love you secondary immigration. You never cease to remind me of that day in LAX where I was kept away from my parents in an armed room with 40 illegal immigrants and Temuera Morrison who looked at me compassionately as he sighed "They always do this to us Maori's." Anyway, this wasn't quite as strict as the USA and he merely had his passport examined with a magnifying glass and was asked some strange questions in regards to his position in the Dominican Republic. We had to laugh when we asked why he was held up - apparently a threat for Zika. Strange they didn't stop me, considering we came from the same country and how I'm Miss low immunity and covered in a million mosquito scars - when Billy never gets bit (the bastard!). We had no accommodation booked (breaking my usual rule of always having the first night planned) but thankfully our friend had given us a local card with an apartment address scrawled across it which was what finally bought his way through customs and we came away smiling as the hot pink Cuban stamp was issued into both of our passports, the first of many to come for Billy I am sure.
The smelly and old fashioned airport gave insight into what we were to expect over the next 2.5 weeks - stale smoke mixed with government enforced weekly fumigation were the overwhelming scents in every shop, home, hotel, bar, restaurant, and business we entered. We were bustled out into the waiting area where a thousand taxis, shuttles, and vendors wanted our attention. We decided to stupidly put our trust into the first person we saw - who told us he would take us to a money exchange that had a line shorter than the one tailing around the arrivals lounge. He also said he would take us to a casa particular in the centre of the city. Pfft, first Cuban trap - he did neither of those. And then promptly took our 40 euro as well as collecting his commission for dropping us at an overpriced apartment that resembled a stark hospital room.
We woke up early the next morning, packed our bags, and found our own way to a cadeca (money exchange) that gave us a better price for our euros as well as had us meeting our first Cuban friend who spent the morning showing us a little bit around town - and collecting free food and drinks from us - as we made our way towards what was our new home in the city of Havana.
We loved walking around and seeing the beautiful buildings and the crazy old cars. We kept turning around each and every corner and there were so many! It was interesting to be in Cuba during the time of change and growth that it is experiencing now. There were many new and modern cars amongst the old american gas guzzlers.
On one of the days, we finally worked out how to take the local transport through havana without having to pay like a tourist. It took asking about 20 people before one kind man gave us a truthful answer. We got in the beautiful old car (albeit slightly beaten up, but still running far better than my beetle ever did!) and asked him to take us in the direction of the number 13... which we believed to be around Miramar area. We drove along the melanin (boardwalk in english I think? The road that goes along the sea...) and finally got out to a wealthy looking area of the suburbs. The driver pulled over, looked at us and shrugged "this is the end of my route." We looked at each other and back to him as he queried, "Where are you two going?" and I replied "Well, maybe this was a bad idea because we have no idea where we are going!" He roared with laughter and told us that it was surely not a bad idea as we were only 2 streets away from the National Fair of artesian products - what luck! So off we went, paid a fortune to get in - only to have our first encounter with how Cuba really survives on the bare minimums. There was hardly anything at the fair, huge parts of the convention centre were empty, and what was there was at an absolutely ridiculous price - as was the $16 euro entry price that we had to pay as non-nationals. We left quickly, and found the worlds largest ice creams and ate them in the super hot sunshine before hightailing it back to the city.
Another of our days in Cuba, we visited the Museum of the Revolution which we had promised my father we would definitely check out. Wow, what a bizarre place! Their version of the revolution, the way everything was written and the story being told was absolutely fascinating. We were super impressed also by the building itself and the artifacts - which even included Che Guevara's hat !
We drank overpriced Daiquiri's at Floriditas - one of the top 7 most famous bars in the world due to being the birth place of the Daiquiri and the frequent hangout spot of writer Ernest Hemingway.
I loved how the local people would dress up either themselves or their pets and pose for pictures - and ask ridiculous amounts of money for them! Billy and I got super sneaky at taking sly photos and then just dropping a few local pesos into their collection baskets instead.
We walked and walked and walked around Havana for what felt like years - but really was only 4 or 5 days. We refused to take taxis anywhere because they were so expensive, so we walked everywhere instead. It was great though because it meant we could stop where we wanted to take photos, to dance to live music in the parks, to browse through bookshops, and to partake in the local attractions.
We even found an airgun shooting range where we could aim and fire at a range of different targets. I shot every single one of mine, and Billy even shot one of his so well that the target flipped off and fell to the ground!
We saw the camera obscura which is a weird contraption that uses mirrors and light refraction to show a live picture of the city on a huge disk inside an entirely dark room. I found it fascinating, especially because one of my favorite books as a child was called the Camera Obscura and I had always wanted to see one. There are only 5 in the entire world, so I jumped at the chance!
We were super surprised by a few things in regards to our initial time in Cuba.
1. You are either Cuban or you are not. Speaking Spanish doesn't mean you get a discount on anything, which was a huge shock for me as my bilingualism has always served me ridiculously well as I have traveled my way through Latin America. Billy being a native speaker and from the neighboring Caribbean island made no difference either. We had to pay the full tourist prices pretty much everywhere we went.
2. The racism and the attitudes of the local people towards us was practically nonexistent. In the Dominican Republic - which I often refer to as the most racist country I have ever traveled to - it is almost impossible to walk down the street without people abusing us or racially profiling either of us. Billy of course is too black because of his Haitian/ African heritage, and I am the color of the tourist - which means I have (supposed) money and am to be worshipped, ridiculed, and extorted all at once. However, in Cuba this attitude didn't seem to exist. We could walk down the streets hand in hand and people barely even noticed us - let alone stare and then yell abuse! Billy of course knows nothing except the attitudes of the country he has grown up in, so for him it was a blissful insight to what life might be like in New Zealand if we ever do make the move home.
3. The difference between the local prices and the tourist prices were EXORBITANT! Trying to understand the two different currencies was something that took me a few days to wrap my head around, let alone poor Billy who had never worked in a new currency at all ! We had fistfuls of both local and tourist pesos and were forever confusing the two.
4. Most of the nice old cars are there for tourism. The really preserved and maintained ones work as private taxi and touring cars available for private hire (for nearly 60 euros an hour!!!). The older and less maintained ones are used as local transport which we took out to the artesian fair. Private cars seemed to be all newer models. Yet there were hardly ANY cars on the road when traveling between towns. It was very strange to see such wide and empty roads with no one traveling upon them
5. The food really wasn't as bad as we were advised. Perhaps we had expected worse? Perhaps we are too used to Dominican food which can often be lacking in spices and taste - think never ending rice, beans, and chicken! The cheapest street food was mostly pizza and spaghetti which came with the saltiest, stringiest, oiliest cheese we know - and which we got very addicted to after initially hating it! And we got addicted to fresh churros with cinnamon and brown sugar !
6. Everything is Cuban made. And if it isn't, it is is practically unaffordable. Most things have the same label or come from the same place - and you realize they are the communist version. Eg, you can only buy one brand of bottled water or soda etc.
7. The best drink in the entire world is Malta Bucanero - malted drink that is not too sweet and not too malta-ry. The best drink to cool you down during a super hot day in the Cuban sunshine. We must have drunk one each and every single day for our entire vacation!
8. For a country that is so "un visited" they are certainly VERY set up for tourism. Official bus stations just for tourists to travel upon, official tours and treks in each town, hop on and hop off bus systems, home stays (casa particulares) where your details are registered everyday with the government to keep an eye on you, everything having two prices, and of course laws about keeping tourists and locals separate. Billy even nearly got arrested one day for walking with me as we entered our favorite locals only (shh, don't tell anyone we weren't local) breakfast spot. We had worked out how we could get 4 egg buns, 2 coffees and 2 juices for just 1 euro. He was suddenly surrounded by questions from 3 policemen while a further few waited at the door and on the street. All Billy had to do was say "Buenos dias" for the lead officer to speak into his walky-talky and tell his backup that "it doesn't matter, stand down - he is a foreigner too like her..." We did of course think that was super exciting to have nearly been arrested for being together!
9. The propaganda and patriotism is EVERYWHERE! Reminders of the revolution and encouragement for socialistic practices are painted beautifully on most public spaces.
10. It was in Havana that we took our most favourite photo of our trip :