My cousin Sasha and I debated for a few nights what to do with our week of travel after the family reunion. We wanted to stay in Central America (or close to) but get weird and go somewhere neither of us had gone. We boiled it down to Guatemala or Cuba, and ultimately decided on Cuba for unknown reasons. So after a three day luxury cruise through Mexico City we parted with the rest of the family and set off. Aside from having to buy a 500 peso visa at the airport, there was nothing different about flying to Havana. We, however, felt like total badasses traveling to a place we shouldn't really be going, even though it's legal now (I think?).
From a five star hotel to a five bunk bed room
We landed in Havana and got through customs and immigration without incident. A driver from our hostel picked us up and drove us the 30 minutes from the airport to the city. I asked him a few questions along the way but he wasn't super forthcoming so I left it alone. He dropped us off at our Casa Particular, a home that is opened up for tourists, and our host Rodolfo showed us our accommodations - a smallish bedroom with high ceilings and five sets of bunk beds. Oh goody, I call top bunk. I had to laugh because the previous night we were staying in a five star hotel. As Darwin said, the survival of a species is based on its ability to adapt to its surroundings. Or something like that.
Bienvenidos a Cuba
The cool thing about staying in a room with nine other people is that you make friends fast. Within five minutes two guys from our room asked us if we wanted to join them on the street to smoke cigars they had purchased that day. Sasha and I couldn't think of a better introduction to Cuba, so we obliged. As we sat on the corner of a rather seedy looking street a local man came up to us and told us how he loved seeing tourists in his neighborhood and how safe it is, thanked us for visiting his country and then tried to sell us weed. Thanks but no thanks. After cigars we decided we needed beers and food so we set off to find that. Easier said than done.
One thing we had heard about Cuba that has so far been more or less true is the fact that the food here isn't great. We wanted to try some authentic Cuban food (beans, rice, meat) for our first meal but the little place around the corner was closed so we settled for the pizza place right next door. It wasn't phenomenal but it was cheap - 10 pesos for a small cheese pizza - the equivalent of $0.45 US. However, the confusing thing is that there are two currencies, the Peso and the Convertible Peso (called the CUC) and the lady serving our pizza rolled her eyes at us as we tried to figure out the two currencies. She finally took the bills from my hands and gave me change - I can only assume it was the correct amount.
That is one thing I have noticed about being in Cuba: the people here are not the most friendly. And if they are, they are almost always trying to sell us something. Like I said before, I shouldn't judge an entire country based on two days of experience, but we've had some weird interactions. For example, it is common for people to come up to us as we're walking and ask us where we are from. "California" is my typical reply, and their eyes light up, "USA!! I have a cousin that lives there. Thank you for coming to Cuba!" And their excitement seems genuine. Then they ask us if we'd like to buy cigars because today is a Cuban holiday and cigars are half priced. Or some bs story like that. I only call bs because I've heard the same story two days in a row, and while I'm sure Cubans love their holidays, every day can't be one.
Another time Sasha and I were walking and a bike cab stopped us and asked us if we would like a city tour. I was mildly interested (doomed) but we tried to get out of it by saying we were hungry and headed to eat somewhere. Another mistake. "Ah, I know a very good restaurant, I will take you there. Hop in." Somehow we ended up in the cab but I wanted to eat somewhere cheap and local, which was not his intended destination. After arguing with him he looked back at us and grinned, "OK, I will take you to a real Cuban place."
"I will also eat with you." Even better.
We arrive at a little restaurant with a dark doorway that I would have missed if I was looking for it. Alex, as we learned his name, asked us what we wanted to eat and went up to the counter to order. I ordered fried chicken with beans and rice and Sasha, who is a vegetarian, ordered plain beans and rice. Alex looked baffled with that but beans and rice is simple enough. While he was up at the counter, the other people in the restaurant (all Cubans) kept giving us sideways glances. Alex had a very in depth conversation with the lady at the counter before coming back to us. "She wants to charge you more for eating here. This is a Cuban place and she doesn't want to give you Cuban prices. But I sorted it out." Umm, ok.
Our food came and mine was delicious - the best meal I've had in Cuba so far. Sasha's vegetarian meal was beans and rice and a big cut of meat, which she was a good sport about, giving the meat to Alex and eating the rest. During lunch I peppered Alex with as many questions as I dared ask about communism and life in Cuba in general, but he seemed hesitant to talk, spoke in a hushed voice and avoided eye contact with me. After lunch we said our goodbyes and will most likely never see each other again.
That night at the hostel when we told people about our experience at lunch they all thought it was very cool and wanted to go, unfortunately I have no idea where the little hole in the wall was. Seems like a lot of our best experiences in Cuba have been ephemeral and impossible to recreate. So it goes.
P.S. Sasha took most of these badass pics.