HAVANA | CUBA
CUBA, THE LARGEST ISLAND IN THE CARIBBEAN WAS THE LASER-LIKE FOCUS OF THE WORLD’S ATTENTION DURING THE 60’S. IN AN ERA OF PARANOIA AND HOSTILITY IT SEEMED THE SUN DRENCHED ISLAND NATION, SO LONG A SUMMER PLAYGROUND FOR AMERICAS WEALTHY, COULD USHER IN A CATASTROPHIC NUCLEAR WINTER. BUT THE MOJITOS WERE GREAT.
It had been surprisingly easy to enter Cuba. The visa process at Cancun airport had been quick and painless. Here at Havana I had been stamped through without issue. I’d heard that the controversial bright pink stamp could cause hassle for me in the future when entering the USA, but that was a fight for another day. Right now I was looking forward to a few days of exploring the famous capital. Centuries before communist revolutions and missile crisis, Havana was a crossroads for New World exploration and a battle ground between British, Spanish and French colonisers keen to plant their feet and plunder what they could.
I’d booked three nights in a “Casa” which is kinda like a home-stay. Instead of a hotel it’s akin to a private residence licensed to host guests. It was located in a run down apartment block containing an old, creaky elevator operated by an equally old and creaky woman. I left my passport with my hosts (to be registered with immigration)and quickly left to explore the city.
Havana remains one of my favourite cities. Ever. It’s a place that seems to have it all. It’s a wealth of contradictions and surprises. Swanky neighborhoods and towering capital buildings give way to rundown and decrepit alleyways within the space of a two minute walk. The people are approachable and friendly. English is spoken here, mostly by the few trying to edge their way into the fledgling tourist industry. My spanish was still in it’s infancy at the time and I enjoyed embarrassing myself with the locals just as much as they did when practicing it. The local hookers in particular got a great kick out of my many excuses for why I didn’t want a good time – or “un bueno momento”as they might say. See? Terrible.
I gotta say though the friendliness often turned sour when it was obvious so many people were out to scam you, or were befriending you purely because they saw the foreign white guy as a walking wallet. It became very draining, especially as each morning you were so excited to explore such an amazing place, only to feel exasperated and annoyed every evening having spent the day dodging scam after scam. Unsuccessfully sometimes.
I took a walk down La Malécon, which takes you down to the entrance of the bay. There are two huge forts here on each side to protect against pirates and rival colonial powers. This seems to be tourist central in Havana. Every street corner is complete with guys leaning against their resplendent classic cars, the freshly polished chrome gleaming in the Caribbean sun. They offer guided tours around the city in the famous old vehicles but you gotta be careful. Many will scam the living daylights outta you, which is what happened to me.
I’d already gone on a horse drawn carriage tour around La Vieja – the Old Town of Havana with a charming, friendly dude who spent as much of his time talking to his horse as with me. We stopped off at the original Havana Club. We watched as they demonstrated how they turned sugar cane into the famous rum and to celebrate we downed a few delicious mojitos as a slightly bored salsa band played in the background. Apparently mojitos are mild in the morning and made stronger in the evening when you need that extra bit of kick.
We returned to the bay and because I’d had such a good time with this guy I asked his advice on how to cross over to the other side to visit the enormous forts over there. We went searching for a classic car taxi guy and quickly found one. Then another dude entered the fray claiming to be the drivers translator because he couldn’t speak english. After some negotiating we agreed on 20 Cuban Peso (CUC – more on that later) return trip to the forts and back. I was excited I’d landed a good deal and an awesome car.
We crossed the bay and arrived firstly at a display of old soviet weaponry. Missiles great and small lined the road including a nuclear warhead – hopefully deactivated. So this was what all the fuss was about. During the early 60’s the pesky Soviets began stockpiling atomic weaponry on the communist friendly Cuban paradise. Cuba is a long way to go to simply store stuff so it was obvious that something was going down. Was Cuba planning on nuking Jamaica, or was there something more afoot? Watch the film 13 Days to discover what really happened next. Ok fine, Kevin Costner advises JFK and RFK on how to deal with the commies and single-handedly saves the world. He mustn’t have done a very good job because it was only a few years later he was starring in a post apocalyptic waterworld and drinking his own pee.
There are two enormous spanish fortifications here. The older of the two is known as El Morro, The Rock, which guarded (unsuccessfully) the entrance of La Habana against the British. It features an impressive lighthouse which is well worth the climb to the top to admire the view over Havana. Like a ye olde game of Pokémon the British agreed to swap Cuba back in exchange for Florida, probably disappointed it contained no tea plantations what so ever. After the Spanish regained Havana and dubbed El Morro “Worst Fort Ever”, they decided that the only answer to an insanely ineffective fort was another insanely ineffective fort. Enter La Cabana, a huge complex that remains one of the largest stone fortifications in the Americas. During the Cuban revolutionary war the fort was used by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara as a military barracks, jail and court. Nowadays it’s a museum dedicated as much to the heroes and torturers of that war as to the heroes and torturers of the age of piracy. Che’s personal office remains intact, seemingly as a place of pilgrimage for schoolkids based on my observations that day.
Having wandered around the dusty old forts it was time to head back across into the city. “The driver is very angry” my english speaking “friend” informed me. “Why is that?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.
“He says you agreed 20 peso per hour, it is now three and half hours later”
“Woah, hold on a sec. We never agreed a rate per hour. We agreed 20 peso return. Full stop”
“Do not be angry with me my friend, that is just what he is saying”
And so the con began. Conveniently the driver “cannot speak english” and so the translator retains an air of innocence. The argument continued all the way back across the bay. “My friend he says you agreed. Now it is 75 pesos to come back”
“nuh uh, no way. 20 pesos return, no mention of hours nothing. That’s what we agreed and that’s what I’m paying”
“I understand that maybe that’s what you think. But he says no. He is very angry”
“I don’t care. I’m not paying 75 pesos, that’s insane”
Eventually in order to get out of the car I threatened with yelling to the Police, I dropped 30 pesos on the seat and just left, fuming. I used to pride myself on not getting sucked into scams but I guess no matter how wary you are you will eventually get stung. The only option is to stand your ground and know when to compromise. Wankers. At least the car was nice. Red Cadillac with a white trim. Despite being angrier then a bag full of cats I had to stand and admire it as it drove away -like an ex girlfriend with an amazing ass.
It wasn’t the nicest car there either. Being a huge Supernatural fan I almost fainted when I came across an almost perfect match for the iconic 1967 Chevy Impala. This ’65 was polished to the nines and had amazing red leather seats. Oh my god get me a towel. I could have done with some Sam and Dean back up ten minutes ago when I was arguing with Mutt and Jeff over ten pesos.
A short walk from here brought me to the Plaza del Armas, the old town square. There is an amazing cigar shop here too, and it was pretty cool poking around inside watching people picking out boxes of Cuba’s finest. The shopkeeper even showed me some of his prized stock – the favourite of Castro himself. I couldn’t afford any of course seeing as -unlike Castro – I don’t own a small country. I was content to stroll down to the amazingly named Castillo De Real Fuerza – Castle of the Royal Force, which should totally be a subtitle for a Transformers or He-Man movie. The Castillo is regarded by many as the oldest fort in the Americas and was built to protect Havana from pirates. As was the case with many of Havanas forts it wasn’t very good at it’s job, allowing Johnny Depp and friends free roam of the city whenever they chose. Today it houses a museum to piracy and to the old shipyard which used to dominate the area producing some of the world’s largest sailing ships for centuries. There are also cool displays of treasure recovered from shipwrecks along Cuba’s Caribbean coast. While I was busy swashing my buckles I was shadowed by one of the guides who interjected in a mixture of english and spanish whenever I stopped to look at something. At the end of the “tour” I was expected to tip. She brought me into a darkened corner out of the view of the security cameras and asked for “it”. Every guys dream right? No. It occured to me that these government employees make so little that they rely on unofficial “tips”. I don’t know if they are punished for soliciting tips from tourists but it definitely seemed like a very under the table kinda business. It struck me as being very sad.
That evening to get back to Casa del Boo I hopped into a Coco Taxi. These are cute little plastic bubbles on wheels that provide a cheaper alternative to regular taxis. They’re a bit like a tuk tuk, if tuk tuks were designed by japanese schoolgirls. It was a lot of fun zooming in and out between these classic old 50’s and 60’s cars clogging the roads, it felt a little like being in a bright yellow time machine, one that was powered by petrol instead of temporal rifts. Dinner that evening was at a little restaurant across the road from my casa. It was a small cute little place that seemed to be popular with the local students. Surprisingly one of the waitresses was an american girl who came here to Cuba to work. That was a little odd. I couldn’t help but ask what differences she noticed. Strangely, not too many. You still have to rely on tips but at certain times of the year it’s impossible to get potatoes. Because of Cuba’s climate they only grow at certain times. Off season only the rich (usually communist party members ironically) can afford them. Communist dictators were one thing, a lack of spuds is another.
Oh yeah I forgot to explain about the money. That’s what the shock of a lack of potatoes will do to you. There are two types of currency available here. The local currency is the regular Cuban Peso (CUP). As a tourist however you are expected to pay with Covertible Pesos (CUC). The CUC is equivalent to $1, and because it is worth approximately 25 CUP’s it makes being a visitor here much more expensive than it would normally be. Don’t get me wrong Cuba isn’t a very expensive place, but it’s a pain in the ass that prices are artificially inflated so much. ATM’s will only dispense CUC to foreign cards. This also makes you a target for scammers, knowing that the money they acquire from you is worth 25 times more than theirs. The hookers in particular were very keen to get their hands – or anything else for that matter – on my CUC. I reserved mine for more reputable businesses though, ones that didn’t require parting with more hard earned CUC in a clinic afterwards.
The next day I hopped on a bus to take a circuit around the city. We passed through the main squares and marveled at the Capitol Building, a feature of pride among Cubans, it being taller than the one in Washington. A drive through the painfully Soviet-esque Revolution Square completed the evening. Here etched into the side of two huge building complexes are the giant heads of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. If at any point in the future Cuba undergoes another regime change it’s gonna cost a fortune removing Che’s face from pretty much everywhere in this city. It’s a face I’m familiar with from a million smelly college T-Shirts, here it’s as common as McDonald’s and twice as visible.
In the evening time I decided on one last stroll through the amazing La Vieja. After about an hour lazily meandering through the twisting streets, marveling at the spanish colonial buildings populated by old women in even older fashioned Caribbeann dresses I arrived at San Cristobal Square. It’s a small, old plaza surrounded by colourful stone buildings with wooden frame windows and black iron lanterns swinging in the breeze – a typical picture of an old Caribbean town.. It’s home to the cathedral of the same name, famous for it’s asymmetrical baroque features. The sun was slowly going down so I sat down on a step, watching the locals milling by. There was a small tour group happily snapping pictures, a little restaurant packed with a mixture of both visitors and locals flicking through newspapers. To the right of me a gaggle of old women loudly comparing their brightly coloured ruffled skirts and afro-spanish dresses. They looked like a gang of trouble makers en route to a voodoo ceremony. Actually I don’t think voodoo is very popular in Cuba. I’ve heard of an old, related religion that is practiced here called Santeria, but it’s practitioners wouldn’t be easy to spot. My mind wandered through these and various other random thoughts as I drank the traditional scene in. It struck me that I was in this country for basically just a long weekend. Next time I’d explore the countryside further, and put my CUC to better use.
If getting into Cuba was easy, getting out certainly wasn’t. I arrived back at Havana airport and had trouble spotting my flight on the departures board. I had ended up booking a flight to Kingston, Jamaica with a cargo company. It was the only real affordable flight on that route and I didn’t really know what to expect. Would I get a seat? Would I end up folded up in the hold next to my luggage and a crate of live chickens? Right now I was just preoccupied with finding the damn flight. After asking around it turned out I was in the wrong terminal. Havana airport has a separate terminal for intra-Caribbean flights and it was a long way away – a $10 taxi ride away. I eventually got there only to find the check in desks were closed. “They open when the manager gets here” relayed the grumpy assistant twiddling his thumbs in the corner. That “might be around nine, maybe”. OK no problem, I’ll just change my money in the meantime. At the money exchange I found myself standing behind an impatient south african dude. He had been waiting here 30 minutes already trying to change his south african rand. Because they had no computer system here everything was being done over the phone. And it was slow. Painfully slow. “If I can’t change my money I’m screwed” he said. After another ten minutes of frustration the results were in – he was screwed.
We sat down at the window and he told me his story. His family were originally from Zimbabwe, and he still carries a Zimbabwean passport. He is flying to Jamaica to visit his dad, it’s only the second time he will have met him. His flight path took him from Johannesburg to Paris to Havana before finally landing in Kingston. It was a long journey but he was excited about it and looking forward to meeting his dad. Eventually a line started forming at the “managers” desk. It was a very slow moving line. Remember when I said there was no computer systems here? Check in consisted of filling in forms and waiting while the manager phoned the airline company while they manually entered the passport information over the telephone. Because me and my new South African friend were joking and talking in the line the manager assumed we were traveling together and called us both up at once. He then proceeded to mix our passports up several times and tried to convince us we had no reservations. We persevered. Again and again we repeated the same information and had to correct him as he misspelled information on our documents. After what seemed like an eternity I finally got checked in as did South African dude. I forget his name, so I’ll just call him Nelson for the rest of the article. Things were looking up until the assistant called Nelson aside to tell him his Jamaican visa wasn’t valid. He let out a scream of despair “are you f******g kidding me?!…..what now???” According to emigration his visa wasn’t properly stamped and was therefore invalid. “I think this is the visa they’re looking for” I suggested as I slipped Nelson a $20. No dice, they wouldn’t budge. After much arguing and nashing of teeth the only solution they could muster was to get it stamped at the embassy there in Havana, but he would miss his flight and the next one wasn’t for another four days. Added to that he had no money as they wouldn’t exchange his Rand. Like a “Go! save yourself!” scene from a movie Nelson asked me to go on through, and if I seen his dad at Kingston airport to tell him what had happened. I agreed. “Keep the $20, you’ll need it to get into the city and find an ATM”. Shocked at the bizarre treatment I had no choice but to leave Nelson to the mercy of the Cuban authorities, I didn’t hold out much hope that his Zimbabwean passport would hold much clout here.
With a heavy heart I boarded the bus that would take us to our plane. It took us along a rickety jungle lined path until we finally reached the airfield. The plane actually wasn’t that bad. Sure, Emirates can sleep easy at night from the lack of competition but at least I got a seat after all. A brief stopover in Santiago de Cuba and we were on our way across the Caribbean sea heading south towards Jamaica and what was dubbed during the age of pirates as “The Wickedest City in the World”.
I never did see Nelson or his dad again.
Next time: Lots of weed, voodoo magic, homophobic reggae dudes and danger. Lots of danger.