Thursday, February 2, 2017

Our published article on the Cuba experience

We have a local printed quarterly news publication in our community, and here is the article that I wrote about our trip. Some of this is taken from previous posts to Facebook and to this blog, but a lot of it is new.

Three Weeks in Cuba

By Mike Evanoff

Sherry and I went to Cuba for three weeks over Christmas this year. Our basic plan was to spend two weeks in Spanish language schools – five days in Havana and five days in Trinidad. We flew into Havana on the Thursday before our Monday classes started, and then spent five days touring around after our classes ended in Trinidad. For this article, I’ll write a little about the nuts and bolts of travel to Cuba and some of the more unusual experiences that we had. If you want more of our insights, descriptions, and rants, you can take a look at our blog:
I would like to emphasize up front that independent travel in Cuba is not easy. If you read the Runner regularly, you will know that we travel a lot and, for us, Cuba was a challenge. I am a Spanish major at GMU, so I can generally understand people when they are talking to me directly, slowly, and not using slang. I can’t really imagine how our experience would have been with little or no Spanish. These words taste bitter coming out of my mouth because we are not fans of group tours, but if you are not an experienced international traveler, or if you have no Spanish skills, I would highly recommend an organized trip of some kind. Okay, I got that off of my chest.

Getting to Cuba is easy. Flights cost about $300 round trip right now, so it is a relatively inexpensive getaway. You can just book flights online, the same way that you would book a flight to Miami. There are, however, 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 really checks. Our most rigorous interrogation came from the confused United Airlines 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 told them to just let us check in. We flew from Dulles to Newark to Havana. At the United gate in Newark, they knew what they were doing. At the gate, we had to pay $75 each for our tourist visas, and then check one of the 12 boxes indicating our reason for traveling. End of questioning. Upon returning home, there was no questioning 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 flew into Havana, but there are several airports that you can fly to. Most Canadians fly into Varadero, because that is where the beach resorts are. We flew into Havana because that is where our classes were.

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. 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. If you have booked a package tour, this is where 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 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 base covered in a low scrubby jungle.
Speaking of money, you need to bring cash. If your cash runs out, you’d better have someone back in the USA who will send you more via Western Union. Your ATM card will not work, and neither will your credit card. You can change your dollars for the Cuban currency in most towns at the “Cadeca,” but they charge a 10% tax up front on dollars and then apply the normal currency exchange fee. You will get 87 CUC for every $100. I had forgotten how anxiety provoking it is to travel on cash. Normally, we just pull out more at an ATM machine or charge meals and accommodations on a credit card. Not in Cuba. Be prepared to look at your dwindling supply of cash every so often and fret. Three weeks is a long time to travel on cash alone. Remember that advice about taking an organized tour? The tours are paid in advance using dollars, so you don’t have to worry about any of this.
Is there Internet? Yes. And no. If you want to pay $5-10 per hour at a tourist hotel, you can. They have functional, if slow, Internet. You can definitely check your emails periodically. Otherwise, you need a scratch-off card from the Cuban telecom company “ETESCA,” which costs $2 per hour, and then you find a wireless hotspot and use the card. However, once you have waited in line at ETESCA to buy a card, you will be told that they are sold out. Like so many other products in Cuba, someone has already waited in line and bought 1,000 of them and now there are none left. So, once you have found a hotspot (just look for a bunch of people on their phones), just lurk around a bit and someone will offer to sell you a card for $3 (a 50% markup). Congratulations, you have just participated in the black market. Get over it, because it will happen over and over again. By some unexpected miracle, my Google “Project Fi” phone got 3G in Havana and slower connectivity in the rest of the island, despite their web page stating that nothing would work in Cuba. We paid $10 per gig for data, and it appeared to be uncensored. If we had used Sherry’s Verizon phone, the same data would have cost $2,000 per gig. If not for Project Fi, we would have used the black market scratch-off cards every so often.

We found Cuba to be a land of stark contrast and confounding to a western capitalist. The people seem to be surprisingly equal in their living situations. We saw no desperate Haitian-style poverty and no Houses of the Rich and Famous. Most people have a little land, a one-story concrete house with a rooftop terrace, and a horse or a bicycle or a car. Havana has a lot of huge, beautiful buildings but these have been co-opted by the government or have been split up into several residences. We always hear of the poverty in Cuba, but they don’t seem much poorer than the rural people we have seen in Mexico, Grand Turk, Bonaire, or any other Caribbean island that we have been to. Cuba is very proud of its high literacy rate, but there is nothing to read in Cuba. Seems a waste to invest in literacy and then provide nothing but a few books on The Revolution, Che, and Fidel. There are two thin government-run newspapers that just write about The Revolution, Che, and Fidel. They seem to double as toilet paper in many locations. If you want to buy the newspaper, it is not sold in any store. You need to find the old guy on the corner who went somewhere to buy a stack of them, and then supplements his retirement by selling them.

Another contrast is that money is coming into the country but there is nowhere to buy anything. We normally think that we can buy things as we need them while traveling, but that simply isn’t possible in Cuba. Need Tylenol, decongestant, or bandages? Forget it. Bring everything that you need for your stay. You may have some luck in the big tourist hotels, but it will be hit or miss. Also, everything is completely thrashed. The cars spew smoke and have no suspension. We went scuba diving once, and the gear was leaky, torn, and barely functioning. The scuba shop was clearly pulling in a good amount of money because the dive bus was full. Cuban tourism industries seem to be in a position where they have money to invest but can't spend it to improve the experience because there is simply no place or process for buying scuba gear. They can’t just order spare parts off of the Internet or from another country because import and export is not allowed. All purchases go through the government. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that things work very differently in Cuba than in any other country that we have been to.

Our Spanish classes were a highlight of the trip. There are no classrooms, so the classes would be held in someone’s living room or in the patio of a family compound. The teachers were patient and willing to talk a little bit about their experiences living in Cuba. We got to know them as people and were able to understand a little better how their lives worked. The three hours of classes every day passed very quickly. Our lodging hosts were uniformly friendly and helpful and seemed happy to have us. One spoke excellent English, one spoke a little bit, and one spoke none at all, but everyone took very good care of us. We were invited to eat with one family for Christmas Eve and another family for New Years. I babbled away in my excitable Spanglish, and they smiled and offered me more beer. I found it to be an agreeable arrangement. Despite these really positive experiences, for us three weeks was too long to stay in Cuba. The museums are uniformly disappointing, the food all has a certain sameness to it, and the old cars are cool for about an hour or two. Next time, we will stay for a week, do day trips to different places, and pay ahead of time in dollars.

All of our Cuba photos in one album

Here is a link to all of the photos that we took in Cuba, minus the ones that were on Sherry's phone when she lost it in Havana.