Saturday, January 7, 2017

Getting from DC to Havana

There are rules about going to Cuba. According to the State Department:

Travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited by statute. However, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has issued general licenses for 12 categories of travel.  

The reality is that nobody checks. Our most rigorous interrogation came from the confused check-in clerks at Dulles who had clearly never processed anyone going to Cuba before. They were looking up the rules and asking us questions until one of the supervisors came over and just said to just let us check in. At the gate in Newark, we had to pay $75 each for our tourist visa and then check one of the 12 boxes indicating our reason for traveling. End of questioning. Upon returning home, there was no question of any kind regarding the purpose of our visit. The take-away is that, at least for now, you can just go. Check the "people to people" box for your reason and get on the plane.

We had signed up for 2 weeks of Spanish Language classes, one week in Havana and one week in Trinidad. Because we flew down on Thursday, and classes started Monday, we had three days to settle in and yet another day after classes were over before we left for Trinidad, so 9 days in all. More on that later.

If you have ever been to a Caribbean island, you will feel a certain familiarity when landing in Cuba. The heat and humidity, the chaotic airport scene, 100 taxi drivers trying to take you to your location. The whole works. It took a really long time to get through immigration because they have to take your picture and check your visa and stamp the passport. I think that the picture has to travel via serial port to the mid-1990's 286-powered computer for processing, based on how long it took for them to move from one person to the next. If you have booked a package tour, then you will just meet with your tour coordinator and get on the modern air conditioned bus that will whisk you to your hotel. If not, get ready to stand in line at the one and only money exchange window at the airport to get some local currency because your ATM card and credit card won't work here, and then haggle for a taxi. Actually, not much haggling at the Havana airport. It is a flat standard fee of 30 CUC ($30) to get to anywhere in Havana.

Now, sit back and relax and watch the next half hour slip by looking at the old cars, the concrete architecture, and the oddly abundant motorcycles with sidecars. The plants and geography are  the same as you will find in nearby Puerto Rico, Jamaica, the Yucatan Peninsula or the Bahamas. Limestone and a low scrubby jungle.

Getting to a particular address generally involves at least two stops to ask directions. The address system is incomprehensible to westerners, and generally you are given a street name and the two cross streets. Taxi drivers tend to just stop and ask locals where the place is located.  We chose to stay in the "Vedado" neighborhood in Havana. It is a bit of a haul from there to old Havana, but it is quiet and not as loaded with tourists. It was about a 20 minute walk to our classes in the morning, so we would get in a quick bit of exercise before sitting down for a few hours.

We stayed at an Airbnb (link to the apartment) and it was lovely. I think that it was around $40 per night We got lucky and had the big bedroom that connects directly to the porch for all of the nights but one. Here is from inside of the living room, looking out.

This is the porch where we wait anxiously for our coffee

Another view of the porch. Apparently, we did not take a picture of the bedroom, but it was nothing special. As we came to realize, none of the bedrooms anywhere in Cuba have furniture unless it was built-in during construction. Often times the bedframes had been nailed together out of old shipping crates and, generally, the individual mattress coils could be discerned. Everything was very clean and comfortable enough, but the lifestyle is a bit monastic. Thankfully, all of the rooms had some kind of window unit air conditioning to help our mid-Atlantic bodies slowly adjust to the humidity of a DC summer again, and to drown out the dogs, horns and roosters. If this type of travel doesn't suit your taste, there is always the option to stay at one of the tourist hotels in Havana or Varadero. They cost between $250 and $400 per night and have, I assume, all of the comforts of home. I can't deny that there were a night or two where that option seemed really appealing.

Breakfast is served for an additional $5 each per morning. Seemed like a good deal to us. The other reason that it was a good deal, is that there really aren't any breakfast restaurants or diners in Cuba. No coffee shops. The little pastry shop below our apartment did not open until 9am, so we would have missed classes in order to eat a few sugary snacks. I don't think that I have ever consistently eaten this much fruit in my life. Every breakfast came with a big plate of fruit and a pitcher of just-now-blended fruit juice. The little bottle in the bottom right corner has space left for rum to make our 5pm cocktails.

So, about 8 hours after leaving DC, we were unpacked, settled in, and out looking for dinner. Stay tuned. 

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