So this is ten years on from our family gap year. The kids have grown up, the nest abandoned, for now; The Boy is working/getting drunk, etc in Australia, The Girl is waiting to start Uni. We have planned to go to Cuba for a long time, we nearly went fifteen years ago when we came into a few grand – where there’s a claim, there’s certainly a blame! But I put my foot down which is a rarity in hours for ‘Pushover Pindar’ as the family unit call me, then laugh like psychopaths! Instead we had a new kitchen fitted in the dilapidated basic house which we had just moved into. When I say basic, it had a gas fire and a shower in the kitchen! Yes a shower in the kitchen with no door on it – the house had been a multiple social security tenant’s house. I only tell you this as a few people say we are always travelling, sometimes it’s a fine line between being assertive and relaxed.
It is planned, The Wife has sacked her job off, I’m working at an academic school that is so desperate for Science Teachers, they are letting me go early and come back late – two and a half months we will be away in total, hurrah.
The first and only major hurdle is getting visas for the Republic of Cuba. There is nothing on the online website’s dropdown menu that says we are going for a holiday, or we are tourists. The box you have to tick is ‘supporting the Cuban people!’ This will become our motto whenever we are being ripped off, which when you’re a tourist – ‘supporting the Cuban people’ is quite frequent.
You know you are in underdeveloped country when you have to line up patiently to have a headshot taken with a digital camera from an operative inside the customs both. People get annoyed, but we take it in our stride, it’s all part of the experience, I pass the time thinking of famous people in mug shots, I decide on Steve McQueen.
Everyone’s bags are re-x-rayed, when it looks like we’re through! Money is a hassle in Cuba; there are two currencies that run side by side. The Cuban convertible (CUC) – tourist money and money the rich Cubans use (there are some, they all work in tourism!) and the peso, or local money, in theory only Cuban nationals can use this, but once you get acclimatised, you can buy some things with it, like food, especially in out the way places. We have to queue to get our CUCs as you cannot buy them beforehand; this takes nearly an hour at twelve o’clock at night. Cubans say their greatest exports are: cigars, rum, music and dancing. Whenever a Cuban tells me this I add, ‘queuing’ to the list! It always raises a smile.
The Airbnb we are staying in have ordered us a taxi, but it has not turned up. We have the hassle of negotiating a new one. There are two types of cars in Cuba; new ones, Japanese and Chinese produced, and old ones from before the revolution (1959!) classic American cars. We jump in one of the later and the pollution it’s producing is like something from Wacky Races. Heading into central Havana in an American Studebaker – if that doesn’t make you feel alive, stop the world and get off.
By now it’s 1.30am in the morning and the narrow and on first impression, shady looking and crumbling streets are empty. I pass the taxi driver the address along with my pigeon Spanish and he goes out of his was to make sure someone is home. From the outside, the apartment (112 Villages) looks rough, but inside it is immaculate, large ceilings, colonial elegance, fantastic.
The government stipulates that all rented tourist’s rooms must have; AC, a fridge, shower/bathroom. We are too wired to sleep, so we head out and find a bar (Monserrate) still open and sip cuba libres. The toilets in Cuba are not for the feint-hearted! This is my first experience, a tiled bathroom, one lone urinal in the corner and one sit-downer, surrounded by an enclosure a pony could easily look over, it has a plantation shuttered saloon door on, with an ironic bolt lock. Anyone that enters the bathroom looks down on you both physically and socially. This is one of the posher bars that tourists frequent! I find it quite amusing, but if you’re a public-toiletaphob, Cuba is not the ‘sanitised’ place for you!
We wake late to discover we are in the heart of the old town not far from Parque Central. It feels vibrant and safe, we eat brunch in Café Paris, queue for more currency for an hour and a half!, in a beautiful colonial bank. Use a service till if you can, there is no rhyme or reason which ones work, but some do. We go on an open top bus tour with Cuclo, the commentary is rubbish, a half interested young woman that looks as though she has been out clubbing all night tells us the name of every hotel, when it was built and how many people it can accommodate, and little else – I know more about Havana than her, except the history of the hotels! We get our bearings and sunburn.
That’s me under the tv.
We head to PA’s bar on Agromante for great cold beers, I get chatting to the owner. He has football shirts adorning one wall of the top teams from around the world, with the omission of Man City! After much discussions he reluctantly agrees he should get a City shirt. The Wife asks me in all honesty if I know him! “I do now,’ I reply. The beer, heat and jetlag send us to sleep, we reluctantly pull ourselves out to get in sync with a walk and food in Plaza Vieja. Havana is crumbling, there is little money for renovation except in Vieja and the important public buildings, which have been restored meticulously back to their original architectural splendour. It has been going on since the 1970’s, Eusebio Leal Spengler is the mastermind, and the Habaguanex holding company (WWW.Habaguanex.ohc.cu) a charity that splits the money from tourism equally between restoration and social projects. I read recently there will be as many as 110 direct flights from the USA this year alone – that’s a lot of US dollar! The upside of this is a beautiful decaying city will be brought back to life and lots of people in Cuba will be better off. Havana reminds me of Beunos Aires, a city that is starting to decay around the edges – The Paris of the South, but forty years on from their financial disaster, again precipitated by America!
Cuba already feels good, we are relaxing into it, the people are friendly, and despite reports to the contrary, appear happy and helpful.
Here’s my initial/landing top 4 tips for Cuba;
- Pay an agency to sort your visa out, it’s not expensive and will save you mucho hassleo.
- When you land get enough money for at least three days, if in doubt go for a higher, rather than a lower amount.
- Buy an internet card (you put a code in to the only government provider available!) and head to a plaza with everyone else. Expect the connection to be poor to awful! Don’t use one of the big hotels.
- Americans only. If you get money out using an American account the Cuban bank/government will charge you 10%, yes 10%! Change all the money you need into Euros and exchange them. Western Union was good option for Americans I met.
Hasta la vista, habaneros.
Next time, #2: It would be rude not to talk politics and revolution in Cuba –- Out 18/8/17
Ian M Pindar writes books, and also about himself in the third person sometimes, so it looks as though he has a large team of dedicated professionals working around him. His latest book is in fact a novella and has the strange title of: ‘Foot-sex of the Mind’. It is not a Mills and Boon, but about finding out what is important in life far too late.