Cuba, Part I: Havana
Quick disclaimer: I am half-Cuban. My mother was born in Havana. I could say that I grew up in the culture, but, that’s not really how I feel. My mother came over when she was five and spoke mainly English at home. My grandparents spoke just as much heavily-accented English as they did Spanish. Yes, we celebrated Noche Buena and yes, I heard stories of the revolution growing up. But I still had to study Spanish in college to speak it passably. I look more Eastern European (my dad’s heritage), so no one has ever mistaken me for a Latino. They tell me I have relatives in a town called Las Tunas, but I haven’t written to them since I was 12. Rightly or wrongly, they’re just not a part of my life.
Having said that, Cuba is still one-half of my heritage, regardless of how Cuban I may or may not feel. For that reason, this was a very special trip for me.
This trip only lasted five days and was spent entirely in and around Havana. I should have taken another week and headed out to the island’s hinterland, but I was working with the PTO I had available to me. I had also already spent several days in the Yucatan prior to this.
Flying from the US to Cuba is not difficult, but it is an odd process. You must declare one of 12 reasons for wanting to go to Cuba, none of which is “tourism.” This is an ever-changing topic, however, as the American administration recently imposed a new set of restrictions. However, for the time being, it seems perfectly fine to say that you are going to “support the Cuban people.”
There are those who choose not to get themselves involved in this pissing match, and so choose another option: going through Cancún. I’ve heard of people buying a round-trip ticket from their American city to Cancún, and then buying a separate ticket from Cancún to Havana. Thus, to the American government, it just looks like you were in Mexico that whole time. I’ve never heard of those people that have done this getting caught.
A word about Cuba: It is a cash economy, and American cards won’t work there. Also, American dollars don’t have a very good exchange rate because of a 10% fee levied by all banks. So what I did and what a lot of people do is exchange your dollars into euros at your home bank. Then, when you get to Cuba, exchange your euros into Cuban pesos. I would recommend going to a larger bank branch, like the one at the Copelia or the FOCSA, because if you go to a smaller branch it’s a jodienda. Just trust me on this one.
And now a word on Cuban pesos: there are two kinds. The one you’ll see most often in the more formal institutions is the Cuban peso convertible, or CUC (pronounced “kook”). There’s also the more local currency, called simply the Cuban peso, or CUP (pronounced “coop”). The CUC is pegged to the US dollar, while the CUP is at about 25:1. However, the prices match up anyway, so it’s not like you really want one over the other. For example, if you walk into a corner store, they might have shaving cream at 2 CUC / 50 CUP. It’s technically illegal for an American to possess CUP, but it’s not like there’s a cop on every corner checking the coins in your pocket.
In local slang, a 1 CUP coin is called a morrocota, while a 1 CUP bill is called a ticket (pronounced “tee-ket”). I learned that from Chiqui, a local kid, who also got me some black market internet cards. More on that later.
When you arrive at José Martí International Airport, you can request customs to not stamp your passport, and they’re totally understanding of it. Once you get outside there are kiosks where you can exchange your money into CUC. I exchanged a little bit of mine to pay for the taxi and some lunch, although the rates weren’t the greatest, so I saved the lion’s share of my euros for a local bank.
Taking the taxi from the airport, it dawned on me that this was my first time in a communist country. I noticed that a lot of the cars on the road were much older models, but not the gleaming 1950s Chevys everyone and their dog has seen pictures of. These were just regular old cars. Many were foreign makes I had never seen before, some with Russian lettering. I even saw one guy in a horse-drawn cart clomping along the side of the road.
Havana was kind of wild. The streets are narrow and the buildings press right up onto the sidewalk. There are some pretty pastel paints used on the buildings, but unfortunately, a lot of them are dilapidated. The driving patterns are aggressive, though not as bad as those of Mexico City or Guatemala City. One of the images that sticks out in my mind is of this old delivery truck zooming through the streets, with three guys hanging on to the back, all visibly laughing and grinning.
The taxi driver dropped me off at my hostel for 25 CUC. If you talk with the owner of your hostel, you might be able to get this price down to 20 CUC, but good luck getting lower than that; it’s a very standard price. The hostel was on a side street off Calle Infanta, the main road through Centro Habana. The wonderful host, Mirella, showed me to my room, and informed me that there were two other people staying there, an American and a Puerto Rican.
The American was named Andy, and the Puerto Rican was named José. Both were almost exactly my age, and both were extremely hungover.
Deciding that all three of us needed some food and coffee, we set off in search of a restaurant.
Walking down the street with Andy and José, I mentally took note of the demographics of the locals. Compared to other Latin American countries, especially Mexico and Guatemala, it’s worth noting that Cuba has a large Black population. According to the 2012 Census, Havana’s Black population stands at 15 percent, while another 26 percent identify as Mulatto or Criollo, mixed. José, himself mulatto, had traveled to the eastern provinces, and said that they were the overwhelming majority in places like Holguín.
We eventually found a diner along Calle Infanta, where I recognized a lot of dishes from my childhood: Ropa vieja. Moros y cristianos. Filet mignon. Bistec empanizado. Platanos fritos. Cafe con leche.
Over food and coffee, I got to learn about my new travel companions.
Andy, tall and bearded and wearing harem pants, spoke intelligently and lackadaisically. He was originally from an affluent family in the Boston area. However, he decided to move to India for five months to let his hair and beard grow out. He was on his way back home in a few days, taking the time to vagabond around the island for a while. Having some Puerto Rican heritage, he spoke Spanish pretty wel;.
José, full name José A. Ramírez Moya, was from a lower class area of San Juan, growing up in Carolina, but had since done extremely well for himself. Perfectly bilingual and palpably extroverted, he was the founder of Globiis, a non-profit organization that develops educational video games to raise awareness for global issues.
As with literally every other encounter I’ve had in hostels, I was the least traveled, least educated, least successful person at the table.
Following a lengthy discussion on Trump’s election and what it meant for America and for Puerto Rico, we decided to head back to the hostel to wash up and then head out somewhere. Walking back, I took more mental notes on my surroundings.
I read later that ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba had been in a state of deterioration. That much was obvious to me as we walked down Infanta and then turned onto our street. The neighborhood could accurately be described by the average American as “ghetto.” The housing stock was very dilapidated, at least on the outside. There was a lot of trash in the streets. Stray dogs roamed everywhere. There were many young guys hanging out on the stoops of their buildings in the middle of a weekday, drinking planchao.
“Planchao,” actually spelled planchado, comes from the verb planchar, which means “to iron.” Ostensibly, you’ll feel ironed out after a few of these. It is boxed rum, and it comes in a white carton, with the word Especial on the front. Everyone in Havana calls it planchao. The preferred way to drink it is to either cut or bite off a corner of the carton, and then tilt your head to the side to awkwardly suck out the contents. It is not good rum. But, at 1 CUC, it does exactly what a lot of Havana’s poor need it to do.
It’s definitely worth noting, however, that despite being poor, Cuba is extremely safe. I heard no gunshots, nor witnessed any violence (except sort of, one time, which I’ll describe later). At no point, day or night, did I fear for my life walking through that inner-city neighborhood.
As we neared the old wooden front door, I heard José groan.
“Here he comes,” he said.
“Ah, your buddy,” said Andy.
“Alek, check this guy out.”
From a group of young dudes chilling on a handcart, one of them approached us. He was a Black kid, no more than 25 at the most, and very short. He had a friendly face but the tightened eyes of someone who grew up very, very poor. His hair was shaved on the sides, in the style of Killmonger from Black Panther. He was wearing an old pair of overalls, missing a button. He also had two gold teeth.
“Chiqui!” José called out to him.
He greeted Andy and José as though they were old friends, not paying much attention to me. I let the three of them talk amicably for a bit, before introducing myself.
“Chiqui” turned his attention to me.
“Que?” he said, face scrunched up.
I found it amusing that he would not understand my clear, college-educated Spanish; I can confidently say that the Cuban accent is one of the most difficult to understand for an English-speaker. It would be like if you learned Spanish in Madrid and then went to work in East Texas.
But as with any time you’re in a foreign country, it helps to be patient. I introduced myself again.
“Tu no puedes hablar espanol!” he yelled in my face, throwing his hands up for emphasis. “You can’t speak Spanish!”
I laughed right back in his face, and told Andy and Jose I’d get changed and hit them up when they were done.
A few minutes later, the two of them came in and asked me if I wanted to go to the beach later, which of course I wanted to. However, they needed to sleep off the rest of their hangover, and so went back to the dorm for another hour or two. Being an introvert, and too excited to sleep, I was happy to get some time to explore the city solo. I got their numbers and told them to text me whenever they got up.
The first thing I needed to do was get an internet card.
There is no nationwide 4G in Cuba. The only way you can get internet access is by buying a Nauta Card, and accessing Wi-Fi at various points around the city. These access points tend to be parks. Just look for a bunch of people camped out on their phones as if it was a Pokemon Go gym.
Getting the cards, however, was not super obvious, and I had no internet at all to look it up. Luckily, I just wanted to get walking around, so I headed out with the intent of asking someone on the street.
That person on the street turned out to be Chiqui.
“Hey, American!” he called out in a thick accent.
Not wanting to make enemies with the neighborhood kids on my first day in Havan, I decided to drop it.
“Where can you find Nauta cards around here?” I asked.
“You need internet?” he asked, visibly excited. “Yes, I’ll take you.”
And off we went, easy as that. We walked for several blocks, passing old brick and concrete buildings, with laundry hung over the balconies to dry, and kids playing in the street. There was hardly any vehicular traffic in this part of the city, so many people were walking, unhurriedly, in the street.
We got to talking. Chiqui’s real name was Carlos, but he got that nickname because he was chiquito, short. He was originally from Holguin, and was 22 years old. He claimed to work in construction, although this was a dubious claim.
Chiqui was a nice enough guy, but every now and then he’d turn around and whistle at a woman on the street. The women, invariably black, invariably ignored him.
“Te gustan las charditas?” He asked me.
I was not familiar at all with this term, but I put two and two together and figured he meant women with a skin tone like his. I told him I really had no preference, but it just so happened that I had met someone at a hostel recently. We were just friends, I said, and she even lived in another state. But she was really cool and if it went somewhere, I’d be fine with that.
Chiqui took out a pack of cigarettes and lit one up. I had quit smoking by then but thought what the hell, it’s a special occasion, and so asked him for one. The brand was Criollo, and they were what American Spirits smoked when they wanted to feel manly. I had one and I was good for the entire day.
Eventually, we got to a little neighborhood park. There were a whole bunch of people on their phones, so I knew we had to be in the right place. I looked around to see where the stand was to actually purchase the cards, but saw none.
“So where do you get them?” I asked Chiqui.
The Cuban Black Market
“Wait here,” he said.
He walked over to two dudes standing under a tree, both about our age. He said a few words to them and one of the guys looked over at me, then nodded. Chiqui waved me over.
“2 CUC,” said Chiqui.
As inconspicuously as I could (read: not very inconspicuously at all), I pulled a few bills out of the coin pocket of my pants. I handed the 2 CUC bill to Chiqui, who handed it to one of the guys under the tree. The guy took a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket. I noticed that it did not actually hold cigarettes, but rather a stack of cards. He took one out and passed it to Chiqui, who passed it to me. Chiqui told me to put it in my pocket right away.
And then we walked off.
For those of you who do not want to do it the illegal way, there are places all around the city where you can find these cards. They will have signs out front, but the signs are small, and they don’t seem to be offices, more like people’s houses that are authorized to sell them.
At any rate, I had my card, and thanked Chiqui for all his help by buying a round of planchao. I immediately regretted this, because the stuff was absolute crap. Also, I felt bad for enabling this habit. But it was what it was. I went to the main park by our hostel to update my social media and do some research.
After a while, I got the text from Andy and José: we were going to the beach. Leaving with beach towels wrapped around our necks, I told them about how Chiqui got me a black market internet card.
“Yeah, I don’t know about that guy,” Andy said. “We’ve been here for like a week, and he’s always hanging out with his friends on that cart. But like, we’ve never seen him move a bag of anything, or lay a brick. I don’t think he works.”
Playa Santa Maria
Just getting to the beach was an adventure in and of itself.
We tried finding a taxi, but Andy and Jose deemed all the prices too high.
“What kind of price is that?!” One driver got out of his car to yell at us, after José made an offer. “Not even my brother asks me for that!”
The Cuban accent sounds like they’ve just come back from the dentist, even more so when they’re yelling, which can be over 50 percent of the time.
So we decided on taking the bus. Which would be straightforward, except that Cubans are just as bad at giving directions as Guatemalans, and take three times as long to be wrong.
Finally, one older gentleman we stopped on the street gave us correct directions. He explained where we needed to go, step-by-step, in the same tone and cadence you would use to walk someone through defusing a bomb.
We eventually found the right street corner, standing in line with a large and diverse assortment of Cubans. We paid 1 CUC apiece for some snowcones from a vendor, which were syrupy sweet.
The correct bus arrived a little while later, and we got on, along with half the population of Havana. We were packed like sardines, squashed in among stone-faced military personnel and cool kids playing American rap and Puerto Rican reggaeton. At one point, a uniformed student tried to get on, but the bus was so full, he could not close the door all the way. One of the attendants at the bus stop started yelling “Tu arriba! Tu arriba!” Basically yelling at the kid to get in there. Eventually, with maximum effort, he squished himself in, the door shut, and the entire bus applauded.
After about a half-hour we could see the beach out the window. We disgorged along with the cool kids, who rode skateboards down the steep hill leading down to the sand.
This was Playa Santa Maria, and was a beach where my mother and uncle used to go to as kids. It was very pretty, with white sand and very clear blue water. There were tables set up for our use, and several guys selling coconut with rum. I paid 5 CUC for a whole coconut, with a hole cut into it and a generous pour of Havana Club rum.
We sat back and enjoyed the sun and the rum for a while before getting in the water.
At one point José, ever the extrovert, got us talking to two ladies on the beach. They were Nyamal Tutdeal (pronounced “two-deal”), and her coworker Simbal. Both worked for the City of Philadelphia.
Originally from Ethiopia, Nyamal’s heritage hails from present-day South Sudan. She works specifically for the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability to help people with gambling addictions, especially those in the immigrant community. Among her many side projects is the non-profit NyaEden, which works to help women in developing nations access proper healthcare. She is also a model.
After a long time talking at the beach, and swimming in the warm, clear Caribbean, we exchanged numbers and made plans to meet up that night.
We met Simbal and NyaMal at the Gran Hotel La Manazana, a gorgeous white stone building in the downtown area of Havana. The rooftop bar afforded us gorgeous views of the square and the other stone buildings surrounding us.
The four of them, having far more general life experience than I did, talked shop and about their other travels, while I sat back and recharged my socializing batteries. Hostel travel really is an extrovert’s game, but if you’re open to it, you can meet some amazing people.
Nyamal, for example, talked with me about her life back in Africa, and her time in the Itang refugee camp. She was relocated to the Midwest as a teenager, and even lived in Lincoln, Nebraska, as I had during college. Fiercely proud of her culture, she said she loved Africa, and had every intention of moving back in the future.
Cabaret Las Vegas
After a while, Jose recommended a club he had gone to on a previous night. He told us it was a gay bar, but like a lot of gay bars, it was fun for people of all types. I myself had spent many a night with friends at The Q back in college, and that wasn’t the type of thing to offend any of us.
Cabaret Las Vegas can be found on Calle Infanta, in fact only a few streets down from our hostel. It is indeed a gay bar, no doubt about that, but the performances feature both male dancers and female dancers in feathery costumes.
At one point, the MC, an exuberant drag queen, got on stage and asked if there were any foreigners present that night. Urged on by the group, I yelled “Estados Unidos!” The whole place responded with cheers, while the people in the booth played a loud country song, and projected a video montage of the stars and stripes, complete with an eagle. Jose yelled out “Puerto Rico!” and was met with more applause, and a Daddy Yankee music video.
Then Nyamal yelled out “Ethiopia!”
There was some confusion for a second, until finally deciding on the most politically correct representation: the opening to “Circle of Life” from The Lion King. Back home this would certainly raise some eyebrows, but Nyamal, no stranger to political incorrectness, laughed it off.
Having taken some hilarious video, we enjoyed the last few performances, which included the MC lip-syncing to “Rolling on the River” by Tina Turner, complete with fake snorting lines of coke. After a very colorful finale, the tables were removed to open up the dance floor. Nyamal, Simbal, and Andy decided to turn in for the night, though Jose and I wanted to stay out a bit later. After saying goodbye to Andy and the ladies and making sure they got a cab, we decided to get some air and walk down to the Malecon.
Officially Avenida de Maceo, the Malecon is an esplanade, roadway, and seawall that stretches for five miles along the Cuban coastline. It was constructed between 1901 and 1952, and is one of the main gathering points for locals of all income levels, who socialize, fish, and swim there.
Drinking in public is permitted in Havana, so Jose and I went up to one of the many sidewalk stalls open all night and got two beers. Walking down the street late at night, I confirmed, was perfectly safe. There were police here and there, but mostly it just did not seem sketch. It was kind of liberating, in a way.
When Jose and I got to the Malecon, there were multitudes of people hanging out on the low concrete barrier, listening to music, playing instruments, or just talking loudly the way Cubans do. It was too dark to really see the ocean, but the wall of buildings across the street was a pretty sight in the lamplight. I shared with Jose stories my mom would tell me about coming down here with my grandfather when she was a kid. Especially the one that I didn’t learn until years later: at the same time that my mom and her father were on the Cuban coastline, my dad’s father was in an American submarine stationed out in the bay.
At one point we were approached by a group of people about our age or younger. One guy had a guitar, and seemed excessively friendly, possibly making up for the fact that his face was incredibly threatening. He reminded me of Henry Silva’s character from Ghost Dog.
He asked us if we were American, even though he had clearly pegged us as such. We got to talking, mainly between him and Jose due to the language barrier. At one point Jose leaned over and whispered, “I don’t trust this guy, dude.”
But we were both really drunk on rum and beer at this point, so we thought nothing of it.
The young Henry Silva disappeared and came back a little while later with two young ladies. He told us they were his cousins. One sat down next to Jose and one sat down next to me.
The girl, whose name I don’t remember, was pretty and friendly, but kind of young. Maybe in her twenties. I wasn’t sure what we would talk about. Well, we got to talking about things and such: the differences between our countries, was I enjoying myself, how pretty my eyes were, did I have a girlfriend, would I like to go somewhere private and enjoy myself even more… Like you do.
I turned to Jose, and from the incredulous look on his face I could tell he was having a similar conversation with the other young lady.
Two uniformed police officers stood not thirty feet away, oblivious to the situation.
Henry Silva came back and asked us if we were having a good time with his cousins. We told him that they were very nice ladies, but that it was very late and we were headed back.
“No, stay with them,” Henry Silva said. “Do you need taxi? I call you taxi. You go back to apartment with them.”
“I’m good,” I said. “Not here for that.”
“Not here for what?” he asked, dropping all pretense of amicability.
“I said, that I’m not here for that. I think you know what, sir.”
“Neither am I,” the young lady said softly, looking into the middle distance over her knees.
The man started getting a little threatening, but Jose laughed in his face. He could clearly take care of himself, and I, though maintaining a non-confrontational facade, was ready to put the guy on the ground if he got any closer. Meanwhile, the lady seated next to Jose, completely blind to the tension in the air, was talking excitedly and trying to write down her email address for him.
Figuring we’d had enough fun for the night, we drunkenly stumbled back to the hostel, not looking forward to the massive hangover but eager for whatever the next day had in store for us.