These observations are simply that: my observations. As the title of my blog indicates, this is “As I See It.” If I am offensive in anything I say, I apologize. That is not my intent. If I am incorrect in any information, I also apologize. I am not an expert, simply a traveler who visited the country for a few days. I hope you enjoy my views.
Each blog post I will tell you what we did on one day of the trip, but I will also give some observations about other topics that span the length of the whole trip.
I advise you to start at Day 1 and work your way through. As I go along I will refer back to things I’ve pointed out and discussed on earlier days.
I hope you enjoy Cuba As I See It
Day 1 – Friday, Dec 23
Mexico to Havana
First let me give you a little background.
My son Vince’s Gap Year goals included a Spanish immersion experience. We looked around at Spanish-speaking countries all over the world, considered things to see, accents of the people, and kinds of different available options from missions work to typical tourist experiences. One of our friends had traveled to Cuba and really enjoyed it. Our research told us it was pretty safe, and we figured that this was a window in time in a quickly changing political environment and would be a good cultural experience as well. So we decided to go to Cuba.
We knew from the travel company and our own personal research that none of our American credit cards would work anywhere in Cuba. Also there is a 10% tax on changing American dollars to Cuban Convertible Pesos, CUC’s, the currency for tourists.
On our trip to Nigeria earlier in the year we had taken a lot of dollars and changed them to Euros on our layover in London.
We had to have enough money in cash for the three of us for the whole 15 day trip including enough for any emergencies that might happen.
A friend whose husband is from Cuba helped me out with some advice as soon as I told her we were going to Cuba. Having been herself, she advised to have a service at the airport wrap in plastic any bags being checked. Otherwise we would arrive in Cuba to find empty suitcases. The baggage handlers at the Cuban airports will for free empty your bags for you and keep your stuff. Our research ahead of time also told us we could carry-on a bag weighing less than 52 lbs plus a personal item. With this knowledge we had decided it would be best to only do carry-on luggage with all our money secured in our suitcases.
Also, when we went to buy our tickets in the spring of 2016 we realized there were no commercial (non-charter) airlines with flights from the US to Cuba. We would need to go to either Mexico or Canada. Since the point was to have Vince practice Spanish, there wasn’t much point in going to Canada. By the time we actually flew, several different American airlines had flights to Cuba, but our tickets were already bought so we stuck to our plan to fly to Mexico and spend a few days, then fly to Cuba and come home by the same route.
Upon our arrival in Mexico, we changed some money into Mexican Pesos for our use during our time in Mexico.
Before we left our hotel in Mexico, Steven got out some Euros and put them in his wallet with the Mexican Pesos we had been using. Then we went to eat one last lunch in Mexico before our departure. During lunch Vince looked at some of the items for sale by souvenir vendors at the hotel and wanted to buy a handmade wooden turtle for 600 pesos (18.8 pesos =1 US dollar). Steven paid for it and we ate lunch. When it came time to pay for lunch he realized his money was wrong. He still had all his pesos. He had paid the vendor in Euros (1 Euro=22.67 Pesos, and 1 Euro = 1.06 American Dollars). He had paid over 600 American dollars for a small wooden turtle. He rapidly went with Vince as his interpreter and explained to the vendor what had happened. The man pulled the Euros out of his back pocket and traded them for the appropriate amount of pesos. He had known all along about the mix-up but wasn’t going to point it out unless we realized the mistake and came back to him.
It being 2 days before Christmas, the Mexican airport was very busy. After asking around, we connected with the man at the airport who had our visas to enter Cuba. The Cubana de Aviacion (Cuban Airlines) baggage check line was one of the most interesting things I have ever experienced. Everybody was checking multiple huge bags, all wrapped in plastic. I recognized several TVs still in their boxes. For example, the lady at the next booth from us checked 4 new car tires, 2 air compressors, a Stanley power tool set, and several other things wrapped in plastic that I couldn’t recognize.
So after watching this, we reached the front of the line. The man quickly told us we were not allowed to take more than 10 kg (22 pounds) each as carry-on. He told us we had to check our (unwrapped, money-containing) suitcases on the spot or pay a large fee to check them at the gate. My husband pushed as far as he could and finally determined we would just have to pay the fee at the gate because there was no way we were going to check those (unwrapped, money-containing) suitcases on the spot, and we didn’t have time to go to a private spot, rearrange the money and then wait in line again. The man became very frustrated and with no small amount of indignation insisted that he would see us again.
As we left the gate the frustrated man informed us our flight was delayed from 3:35 to 4:20. We might have had time to switch around the money, but we were committed by this point.
Going through security we lost a small pair of pliers and 3 bottles of sunscreen, but otherwise things went smoothly. We found a table to reposition our money so it was in our backpacks instead of our suitcases. Then Vince realized he wasn’t holding his passport like he should be. Obviously, being in Mexico and headed to Cuba, this would be a problem. After about 10 minutes of panic, we realized he had put it in his backpack. Tragedy #2 avoided.
With our hearts still racing we checked a boarding pass and headed to gate B14. On the way we found a luggage store where they couldn’t wrap our bags in plastic but instead sold us some straps with combination locks. Hopefully that would keep our bags safe should we need to check them at the gate.
We arrived at gate B14 but nobody from the crazy baggage check process was waiting there. The notifications and announcements at that gate were for a totally different flight and no one could or would tell us where our flight was leaving from. The screen simply said the flight was delayed with no gate designated. The gate agent also told us that the screen often gave incorrect information. We waited until about 4:10 (for our flight now scheduled for 4:20) and started doubting that B14 was correct. We asked the gate agent, kept looking at the screen and between the three of us, even with Vince’s Spanish skills, could not figure it out. Finally we went back to security and a friendly security agent (they do exist!) called for someone from Cuban Air to come help us. But of course nobody did. At 4:35 the security guard asked if he could see a boarding pass. As it turns out, our gate was A9. The seat assignment was B14. In our stress about checking the bags and the misplaced passport, Steven had looked at the boarding pass and thought the large B14 was the gate, not the smaller, tiny even, and totally unlabeled A9 which turned out to be the gate assignment. We ran to A9, hoping we had not missed our flight. Arriving at A9 I immediately recognized several people casually relaxing in the waiting area who had earlier been checking those massive amounts of baggage. About this time we also realized we had been reading the screen wrong. What we thought was the destination arrival time was actually the estimated departure time. So our flight was now actually designated as leaving at 6:30. Tragedy #3 avoided.
We ate a quick dinner, knowing we probably wouldn’t be able to eat dinner later (and we were correct). Meanwhile, Steve used up a portion of his very limited international data plan on his phone to research the airline’s baggage policy. As it turns out, our previous information was totally wrong and you really are only allowed one carry-on item weighing less that 10 kg (22 lbs). Our backpacks (our “personal items”) each weighed more than that, and certainly our 30 pound suitcases did.
While we were eating they changed the gate to A5. It was about 5:30, and they changed our departure time from 6:30 to 6:37. We quickly finished our burgers and headed to our new gate. Steven approached the gate agent and profusely apologized for the earlier misunderstanding with the man downstairs about the bags. He explained the situation with the money, and the gate agent understood our predicament, though he said his colleague had warned him we would be coming. He called someone who waived the gate bag-check fee and he told us to leave them at the bottom of the jetway. We could pick them up at the luggage carousel with all the other crazy checked luggage. Grateful for his help, we lined up to board the plane.
In the jetway we crossed paths with the agent who had tried unsuccessfully to make us check our bags. Steve tried to apologize to him, but he wasn’t receptive, so we kept moving. At the bottom of the jetway we placed our bags and started to walk away, but one of the employees standing there said we could take them on with us. We certainly didn’t argue. We found our seats and there was plenty of overhead space.
Our plane was an Airbus 320 of European origins. No Boeing for them.
There were no in-flight magazines. The laminated safety cards had Spanish, English, French, and Russian. They were wrinkled and looked about 20 years old. The “no cell phone use” image was a picture of a cell phone similar to what I had in college in the mid-90s.
The peanuts they gave out were made in Colombia, and the cola and lemon-lime soda were also what we would call generic. (I soon learned that this soda, called Tucola, is the national brand of soft drink. At some places you can get imported Pepsi or Coke that is manufactured somewhere besides the US, but it is more expensive.) They also offered orange juice and peach nectar. We landed at 8:00. The landing gear sounded like someone was hand cranking it. As soon as the seatbelt sign was turned off the passengers jumped out of their seats, grabbed their bags and started pushing and shoving their way forward in the aisles. People were doing everything but climbing over the seats to get ahead in the line.
Once the line started moving and got to our aisle a nice lady behind us stopped the push and let us out. They were loading a bus to take us to the terminal and we were the last ones to fit on the first bus, standing on the stairs, actually. Being that close to the doors, when they opened we were the first ones out, and we arrived at the immigration lines ahead of the rest of the passengers. I always get nervous going through immigration and customs anywhere but the US, though I’m not sure why. I’ve never had any problems.
Steve got through pretty quickly at the immigration desk and he moved on to the security checkpoint where they X-rayed his carry-on baggage and made him walk through a metal detector. I was next and handed over my passport and visa. The agent typed my passport number into the computer and waited and waited. Finally he handed back my visa and asked me to write my passport number on it. Now remember, he still had my passport. I had the number written on my customs form, though, so I carefully rewrote it on the visa. It didn’t at all match the number already written on the visa. He took it, typed it in again, waited a minute, stamped my passport, and I was through. After further thought, we remembered that between the time when we applied for the visas and the time we left for Cuba I applied for and received a new US passport as mine had less than 6 months on it, and we had read that can be a problem sometimes. So I guess he was having me correct my passport number on my visa.
Somehow I set off the metal detector, and they had to scan me with a wand. The agent with the wand was dressed in street clothes. The wand didn’t detect anything so I was through. Vince’s quiz cards and power strip got the attention of the X-ray, and they pulled them out of the backpack to scan individually. Though some of his competitors might disagree, they decided his quiz cards were not dangerous, and they decided the power strip was indeed a power strip and cleared him to continue on.
There were nurses in white uniforms and nurses’ caps behind some tables, but they waved us past. I’m not sure what they were checking.
We walked past the baggage claim area which was piled high with large boxes of TVs, other electronics, a stroller, and on and on. Everything was wrapped in plastic. Since we were allowed to carry-on our luggage, we didn’t have to wait. We heard later that some of the people on our tour waited for 2 1/2 hours just for their luggage to come out. There was a large crowd of several hundred people waiting to greet people who had arrived. There were mixed among the crowd people holding up signs with various names. We found a woman named Daniella holding a sign with not our names but the name of our tour company. She was waiting on us and some other people arriving. We asked her if we should change money and she said yes, this was a good place as the exchange rate was better than most other places in the cities. We got in the line with probably 10 people in front of us. Someone had told us in Mexico that it would take a couple of hours just to exchange money. Standing in that line and placing our bodies to shield what we were doing as best we could, we used my large touristy hat to count out the money from our backpacks that we wanted to change.
As we waited, the line behind us grew and grew and by the time Steven came out with the Cuban tourist currency, (Cuban Convertible Pesos, or CUC’s, pronounced kooks) the line was probably 75-100 people long. The money-changing process had taken us 15-20 minutes total. Finding a spot behind a pole and again using my hat, we counted the money and divided it among us to carry. I have heard from some that Havana is a very safe place, but I also heard different accounts from the locals. By this time it was 9:30 and we were ready to leave the airport. Daniella had arranged a taxi but we needed a bathroom so we went there first. Neither elevator was working so we took the “stairs,” which were actually an escalator which, from the litter and dirt on them, looked like they hadn’t moved in years.
We found Daniella again and she informed us our taxi was 3 minutes away. He arrived, helped us with our bags, and off we went to our homestay location for the night. A process that could have easily taken us 5 or 6 hours had taken us less than 2.
Our taxi driver was very nice and spoke with Vincent in Spanish the whole way to Old Havana. They discussed what various buildings were as we passed them in the dark. We passed the Plaza of the Revolution where Fidel Castro gave many of his speeches. The architecture in Old Havana reminded me a bit of the older parts of New Orleans with all the wrought iron accents. There was also beautiful ornamentation on the buildings. We passed the Capitol building, which is currently being renovated, and the Grand Theatre, which is absolutely beautiful. But we knew we would be coming back to Havana at the end of our trip and we could see the things in daylight then.
We were scheduled to stay not in hotels but Casas Particulares. These are the Cuban equivalent of B&Bs. I am told (and believe it from what I saw) that they are much nicer than the average Cuban home. I also heard that they are nicer than Cuban 3 star hotels. They are maybe, if I’m generous, the equivalent of a 2 star American hotel. Most were clean. All had a private bathroom. None were anywhere near nice or even adequate by our standards.
We arrived at our homestay for the night and the owner greeted us and showed us to our rooms. The ceilings were high, maybe 14 feet, with beautiful crown molding. The furniture was very old, but in good shape. Little did we know, this would be one of the nicer places we would stay. It had furniture including a mirror. Most of the others had either no furniture or just a small nightstand. I will include a picture of each homestay location (though I think we missed taking them of one or two).
The tour guide had left us a letter telling us when to be ready in the morning for the start of our activities. We got settled, and I took a cold shower because I couldn’t figure out the hot water. They had absolutely awful water pressure, and we went to bed exhausted but relaxed and excited. We found out that Cuban beds consist of an uncomfortable mattress with no box springs. Some are simply made up of about 5 inches of foam. For each of them, you better not sit down too hard or weigh too much or your backside will reach the slats beneath the mattress.
To continue the journey, click here for Day 2.