Story & Photos by Shawn Underwood
Cuba is back in business!
Americans are traveling (finally) along with the rest of the known population to Cuba. Cubans are ecstatic. I’m not kidding. I can’t tell you how many times we heard “Welcome, we are friends now.” The Cubans have been living in a time warp for years.
Do you like 1950’s cars? Check out Cuba, however it’s kind of a touristy thing. Most of the cars are retro but some are a bit more tricked out to appeal to tourists. Cubans aren’t hitching a ride in these 50’s cars converted to taxi’s. They can’t afford it. The normal Cuban citizen is working one of three daily jobs. Times are tough for the majority of the Cubans however the citizens of Cuba are survivors. How do they do it?
I can’t tell you how many times we caught a ‘citizen cab’ from a local on his way to work. It’s a quick way to pick up an extra buck which by the way won’t be reported in this socialist economy. I nearly lost my husband when the door of our citizen cab flew open as we rounded a corner. Our driver simply told us in his broken English. “Hold door shut.” Ummm. Ok. Most of the folks in Cuba are husseling. All. The. Time. And that’s ok because you know what?
The locals don’t beg for money! Nobody asks for a handout. There are NO homeless people on the streets. Everybody has a job. Raul Castro makes sure everyone is working. Maybe that’s why the streets are so clean. And maybe that’s why we found pretty darn good homemade meals. Cubans can now open restaurants in their homes and the restaurants are busy! These home-style private restaurants are called ‘Paladres’. Some are very ‘mom and pop’ and some are quite slick. There is a virtual banquet of choices in Havana. And speaking of Havana.
We stayed in a fairly centrally located airbnb in Havana. Also known as ‘casa particulares’, it’s simple to book your lodging stateside. Search through Cuba’s listings and book online using your credit card. Airbnb transfers the money to your host. This is a boon for the Cuban homeowner and a real money maker. Our casa costs us $114.00 per night. Not $114.00 per person but for four people! Which brings me to money.
American credit cards DON’T WORK. Cuban cash works. Trade your American dollars in for Canadian currency or Mexican Pesos before you leave the USA and then trade that money in at the Havana airport. There are two kinds of money in Cuba. CUCS (tourist money) and Cuban pesos. Confusing? Yes. We mostly used CUCS though one rather militant ice cream vendor insisted we used pesos. We found some pesos. We ate a lot of ice cream because it is freaking humid in Havana. The humidity is insane! Yes the weather is glorious but believe me you will dodge into any air conditioned room you can find during the day. Trust me on this. We dodged into one of the few antique shops we found but alas it wasn’t air conditioned. Lord help me. I love shopping for vintage goodies. Luckily Ronda came to our rescue.
Ronda is a true Texanâ€”gracious, charming and ready to share her air-conditioning. I looked like a hot house weed (not flower) and Tracy didn’t look much better. (Sorry Tracy) She felt sorry for us and led us upstairs to her airbnb apartment. I love Texans, they are always so hospitable. Even in a foreign country. Ronda gave us the down low on sites not to be missed. Here are a few of my favorites:
Pig Bayâ€”about 1 1/2 hours from Havana by taxi. It’s not what you would think. There are no historical landmarks and in fact I don’t even recall seeing a sign. The cab driver simply stopped on the side of the road and said, ‘here is Pig Bay’. We rented gear from a roadside scuba shack and jumped into bath temperature water. Almost too warm if there is such a thing. We only dove at Pig Bay so I don’t know if there were other things to do but I suspect not.
Hemingway’s houseâ€”there are signs of Hemingway everywhere you look in Cuba but his house is really worth the trip. His boat is also stored at the house. Tours are available once you arrive at the house which is located in Havana. Some tourist’s were able to actually go inside his house however we were relegated to looking through the windows which was actually ok. His house looks as though he is still living it it.
Carlitos Antiquesâ€”Actually I don’t know the name of the store but Carlito is the owner . Carlito was Cuban history personified. He has stories. Lots of stories. His prices are good too.
The Italian Pasta across the street from the Cuban Universityâ€”If you know me then you know I suck at directions however there is only one university in Havana and only one walk up cafe across the street where you can order the best pasta ever!!!! IN. CUBA. How weird is that? The pasta place wasn’t on Ronda’s list. Just a lucky find.
La Fabricaâ€”I actually had no idea what this place was until we arrived. It’s a giant art gallery / bar / restaurant all rolled into one architecturally cool building on the way edge of Havana. Loved it!
I could go on but this post is getting too long so I’ll cut myself off before I bore everyone to death. Actually I did forgot one thing. USA has rules for going to Cuba. Here is a quick synopsis:
As long as the trip falls within one of 12 purposes, Americans can go to Cuba without having to apply for permission, in the form of a license, from the government. The 12 categories of legal travel include visits to close relatives, academic programs for which students receive credits, professional research, journalistic or religious activities and participation in public performances or sports competitions.
JUST. GO. TO. CUBA.
One last thing, really it’s the last thing. At the Revolutionary Museum (a must) I saw a lot of cool manual typewriters. They weren’t for sale and too heavy to carry home anyway BUT if you are looking to divest yourself of your retro typewriter then give me a shout. I buy old typewriters. Cash $$$ just in time for Christmas.
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