Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Tuesday Morning is the Best Time to Arrive in Havana by Suz deMello

Some of the creative graffiti I saw in Havana Centro, near where I stayed.

I travel as much as I can, not just for inspiration but for engagement. When I'm unhappy, the best way for me to get away from the source of my distress is to leave (duh). Additionally, when I travel, especially to someplace new, I'm deeply engaged in my life and have no mental space for worrying about whatever it was that was bothering me. When I don't know the language, don't know where I'm staying, don't know where I'll eat my next meal, I have a lot more to focus on rather than dwelling on my last unhappy love affair.

And so it was with my latest trip out of the USA. After the president announced plans to open the USA's relationship with Cuba, I decided to travel there ASAP so as not to see Havana when its skyline would be dominated by the Starbucks mermaid and the Golden Arches.

But I really screwed this one up.

At this time, Cuba has no banking relationship with the USA. That means that you have to have money in hand before you leave for Cuba, because your ATM card and credit card won't work there. So I planned to go to Cancun, withdraw a bunch of pesos, fly to Cuba and change them to the local currency there.

There are hordes of tourists in Havana.
They're just not Americans.
Unfortunately, I neglected to tell my bank, so when I started to withdraw money, I got maybe $400 and then...nada. Zip. Zero.

I emailed my bank to no avail.

I tried to phone, but neither my hotel phone nor my cellie would get through (Damn you, Virgin!)

So I landed in Cuba with maybe a quarter of the funds I needed to have a really good time, or even to eat three meals daily.

I told myself that this was a good time to lose weight.

I shared a taxi from the airport into Havana with a couple of Ukrainian dudes and immediately paid the host of my casa particular for the stay. Alex was extremely kind, allowing me the use of his computer so I wouldn't have to pay a hotel at their business center for internet access--I was trying desperately to make sure I'd have enough money for the next phase of my journey, which was Isla Mujeres.

Despite my straitened circumstances, I had a good time researching my next

story, One Hot Havana Night. I couldn't afford taxis, so I walked all over Havana Vieja, the tourist quarter, where I set my story. A friendly expat showed me a lunchroom where I could eat a huge meal for $1-2--so that's where I ate. It was pretty good food--a protein (eggs, chicken or meat) with a little salad, plus rice and beans--typically Cuban meals. I even had enough left over so I could go to a bar and get a drink while listening to the local music every night.

Havana was great, but it's nevertheless a tourist trap. It's just that the tourists aren't Americans. Lots of Europeans, especially Italians, and a number of Japanese.

The Victor Hugo house inspired
the setting for my story
I learned a lot. Most people seemed pretty contented. As for the economic system, while I heard someone complain that they work really hard for little money, I saw only one or two people who seemed to be badly off. Everyone else looked happy and well-fed, though not obese. I saw many of the famous classic American cars, but I saw a lot of new cars as well--Peugeots and Kias, Hyundais and even Benzes. I just didn't see newer American cars. That's because Cuba isn't isloated at all. It's just that we don't have an economic relationship with them. Other countries have been trading with Cuba quite happily.

Still, I can't say that the place is well run. The Castros seem to be good at getting and keeping power, and not so hot at using it. Many
of the old, beautiful buildings are crumbling, though I must say that they're making an effort to resurrect them. Many streets are dug up as improvements are being made. And this brings me to the title of this post.

So why is Tuesday morning the best time to arrive in Havana?

Because the trash is picked up Monday night, at least in the part of Havana where I stayed. Until then, it's thrown into giant Dumpsters by the locals. As you can imagine, the garbage gets pretty ripe in the tropical heat. 

But Havana smells great on a Tuesday morning.

*****

One Hot Havana Night will be available on July 1 in the Naughty Escapes anthology. 

Here’s where you can preorder a copy:



10 comments:

  1. Oy! One of *those* travel stories!

    Sounds like you adapted well, Suz. Of course, you have lots of experience.

    I look forward to the story.

    Your comments about how different the place was than what you'd been told remind me of the first time I went to China. (Actually the only time I've been to mainland China.) This was in the mid-eighties, not long after US/Chinese relations had opened up. There was still a lot of anti-communist propaganda. We heard:

    1. You can't go anywhere on your own. You always have to have a guide or a minder.

    2. People can't have their own businesses. Everything is run by the state.

    3. There's only one way to go there, via a tour with the official China Travel Agency.

    And so on.

    We discovered that this was all just nonsense. In Kunming, we rented bicycles and rode around for hours in the back streets. At any of the tourist attractions, we had to brave the same sort of gauntlet of souvenir vendors that one would find in any Asian country. The only difference was that they were all bundled up in coats and hats. (This was December.) And we learned just how wrong the last item was when our flight was moved forward and we arrived back in Guanzhou a day before we were expected. We ran all over trying to find our guide. We figured he must work for China Travel Agency, right? Turns out there were DOZENS of independent travel agencies, with offices tucked away in the back corridors of hotels.

    Don't necessarily believe what your government tells you!

    Oh, and how was the music? That's one reason I'd love to go to Cuba.

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    1. Yeah, I had the same experience when I lived in China. It's not communist at all--it's a totalitarian capitalist dictatorship. You can't swap out one set of elites for another and say it's communist and actually have a communist system. And religion is tolerated in China--every Buddhist temple I visited was busy, and one of my co-workers openly wore a crucifix.

      Yes, the music is great but again, everything is designed to appeal to tourists. I don't know if I ever heard anything original. At one bar I even heard "Guantanamera."

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  2. Good idea to get in there before the good ol' US fucks it up. I have a cousin in Florida who says there'll soon be a ferry from Miami. When that happens, I'll be sure to go. hope it's sooner and not later. Good tip about the credit card/atm deal, Suz. That'll likely change too.

    Sounds like Cuba is an accommodating destination. It's good to be in a place where people are nice. I have no desire to go where hatred is a way of life. Fuck Africa, fuck the near east, middle east and the Caucuses as they stand now. Give me Thailand, in my experience the nicest people in the world.

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  3. Have to argue with you there Daddy X, the Highlands of Scotland is home to the nicest people in the world. Polite and unassuming, they'll make you feel you are truly welcome. Eant to go to Cuba though. Love that rhythm!

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    1. Perhaps I'll get to Scotland one day. The British Isles (as well as most of Europe) are still in the ball park.

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  4. "Additionally, when I travel, especially to someplace new, I'm deeply engaged in my life and have no mental space for worrying about whatever it was that was bothering me."

    I've noticed this, too, and always felt it held an important key to life. If only I could figure out how to be a traveler in my own home, I'd be getting somewhere...

    And thank you for this incredible post! I'm sorry about the financial difficulties, but it sounds like you handled them, and I'm so excited to read your firsthand report from a place I've always been curious about. And the story sounds awesome, too!

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  5. Thanks for the post and the photos, Suz. As a naturalized Canadian citizenship travelling from Canada, I've gone to Cuba several times. Package deals that include the flight with the hotel (or resort, with meals included) are the cheapest. Even still, I was very relieved to be travelling with my Spanish-speaking Chilean spouse. Cubans must speak Spanish faster than any other Latinos I've met. And Cuba is definitely not the same type of tourist destination as Mexico. Some items (e.g. sunblock for very pale skin) are hard or impossible to find in the stores. And in my experience, Cuba has less internet access than any other place I've been, but as long as you have enough money for your stay, being isolated this way can be a good thing if it forces you to focus on the here and now.

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    1. The packages from the US are hella expensive but will get cheaper, I think.

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  6. I don't generally long for places with hot weather--in fact I tend to avoid them--but your description of Cuba reminds me of how much I'm missing. Thanks for sharing!

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  7. Thanks for all your fine comments!

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