Havana Feels Like a Paradise in Purgatory
A guide for American tourists travelling to Cuba.
Despite the embargo, I made it back to America from sunny Cuba about a week ago with not a sniff of a hitch. I don't know if you've ever been there and already know all of this yourself, but – regardless – I thought I'd share some of the knowledge I gained from living as an American in the land of Castro. Oh, and for reasons I don't need to explain, this article is about real people with fake names.
The first thing you should know is that it's not illegal for Americans to be in Cuba, but it is to "conduct travel transactions" with it. Which means that spending any money within the country is practically impossible if you're not into being sanctioned by the US government. However, there's no reciprocal Cuban law against American tourism, and Cubans are generally happy to let in all kinds of tourists, including Americanos. When you enter the country, police will stamp a little visa paper instead of your passport. My girlfriend Rose and I got our little visa papers through a Canadian travel agent who specialises in this very process.
Since there aren't any flights from the United States to Cuba, we had to first travel to Mexico and then hop on a Cubana Air flight to Havana. To book with Cubana Air, you'll want to use a travel agent because, although it's possible to buy a ticket online in the States, doing so would raise a few minor treason-y flags with your American bank or credit card.
Since Cuba hates the US and vice versa, there are no channels of communication, which means that, as far as the US government is concerned, you've only gone to Mexico. It's a low risk situation, with one small exception: since you pass through Mexico on your way in and out of Cuba, you'll have two Mexican stamps in your passport, one for each time you entered the country. The stamps will reflect that you entered Mexico then re-entered only a few days later, so you might want to think of a lie to explain where you went in between. Rose and I, for instance, took a beautiful bus trip to Belize.
Entering Mexico was easy, but we weren't so lucky getting into Cuba. A mean-looking customs officer in a tan uniform spotted our American passports in the customs line and began asking us a bunch of questions in Spanish. We kind of freaked out, but thanks to our combined 12 years of college Spanish, we were finally permitted to make our way to the stamping desk.
As we hustled towards the exit, we heard someone behind us shouting "Permiso!" and, before we knew it, we were being motioned back into the customs area. A swarm of tan-uniformed customs personnel scuttled towards us and a young, heavily made-up female agent showed our passports to a bunch of senior-looking people. Then she began asking us a tonne of questions, including whether we knew anyone in Cuba. "Um, yeah, un amigo de mi amigo. A friend of a friend. I don't know his last name. Only... Ramirez," I responded. She looked at me like I was an idiot, as did Rose. Still, I guess our general goofiness put the make-up lady at ease, because, after searching our bags, she let us enter her country.
THE THING WITH CARS
Havana looks depleted as fuck. Everything has this decaying, dingy glaze to it, while the air quality is horrendous, yet both stem from one of the best things about the city: the classic cars. Big beautiful 40s and 50s American cars in various stages of repair – between pristine and decrepit – take up the streets. The problem is that they run on leaded gas, which means that thick plumes of black smoke chugs out of their exhausts right into your face. Rose and I both spent the whole trip in various stages of respiratory distress, painfully wheezing at each other about how nice that car's paintwork would be if its exhaust wasn't giving us bronchitis.
MONEY AND SERVICE
Being a tourist in Cuba is quite different from being a tourist in any other country. To begin with, it functions on two currencies. There's the Cuban Pesos, which are only for locals, and there's the CUCs (Convertible Dollar), which are for tourists. The precise reason for the separation is unclear, but it has to do with protecting Cuban citizens from the temptations of globalisation and foreign investment.
Although we might like to think differently, the fact is that when Americans travel to poorer places, we automatically become part of the upper class. The dollar is still a very powerful currency, so our whiteness goes a long way. Everywhere except in Cuba that is, where Communism means that no matter what you do for a living, your salary is the same as everyone else's.
We hung out with a bunch of Havanites during our stay; a pharmacist, a cigar factory employee, a dolphin trainer, a forest ranger – they all get paid about $15 to 25 US (£9 to 12) a month. The Cubans have a great saying about their economy: "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us." As a tourist, you experience demonstrations of this mentality everywhere. No matter how much you scream at your waiter, he's not going to kiss your ass for $15 a month.
Because of their controlled poverty, Cubans have a strange relationship with food. Cuban cuisine is basically based on the combination of rice and beans with some kind of meat or fish. Since the food sourcing is almost 100 percent local, certain vegetables are only available during certain seasons. I guess we got there during lettuce and tomato season, because that was the only fresh produce we ate. The rest was a nondescript spread of canned vegetables and mashes of carrots, peas and cabbage in a heap on the side of our plates of pork or fish.
Most of the government-run restaurants in Cuba are pretty terrible, but there's one reprieve: paladares, the "unofficial" restaurants run out of people's homes. They're flirting with legality, but seem to be tolerated, probably because no one can stand eating at the other places. Their menus are usually small, comprised again of meat with rice and beans. But at least the paladar proprietors don't have the questionable judgement to serve putrid canned vegetables as a side and make you pay for it.
You end up making a lot of bad food choices in Cuba because good, operating paladares are hard to pin down and there's basically no internet to Yelp you around. I anticipated this and wrote down some decent-looking paladares I found on the internet before we left, but most of them were either closed or impossible to find.
THE GOOD THINGS
Cuba is as safe as Ryan Seacrest prerecording his appearance at an awards show. Despite being a city of two million impoverished people, Havana has the most mild-mannered population I've seen outside the suburbs. We traversed the city day and night without any thought to which neighbourhood we were in.
While there, we met up with a guy we'll call Ramirez, who's a pharmacist by trade as well as a kind of godfather to the microscopic Cuban surfing scene. He invited us to his friend's place, where we were rolled some cigars. Ramirez was well-read and up to date in everything pop culture, which is incredible for a guy who's never left Cuba and has incredibly limited access to internet. (Cubans are only allowed internet through a medical exception, weirdly, or can sometimes use it by posing as tourists to get online at one of the big hotels.) Access to American music or movies is equally limited, so I spent quite some time playing Kanye West on my iPhone on repeat for Ramirez and his gang.
Another thing I loved about Havana was the complete absence of advertising. Portraits of Che, Fidel and Camilo Cienfuegos, or simply the words “Viva July 26th” – Castro and Guevara's revolutionary movement – are everywhere. It might sound intimidating, but I'd take Castro over the Kardashians any day.
The beach is also a plus. Warm turquoise Caribbean waters, pale sand and good sun. We spent a few days at a resort on Playa Del Este, a beach area just east of Havana. It was a pretty dingy spot – a hunk of concrete adorned with statues of mermaids and dolphins, filled with awkward families, old dudes in Speedos and 30-something South American vacationers. A rep would half-assedly try to get everyone to take salsa lessons and watch the magic show in the lobby at 5PM and the booze was all-inclusive. I bought a coconut from a guy on the beach and had the bar fill it all the way up with rum, all with no dirty looks.
Pot is extremely expensive and even more illegal in Cuba. A tiny little bag of shake costs about 5 CUCs, which basically translates to a month's salary for a Cuban. If we got arrested smoking, Rose and I would probably get kicked out of the country. Ramirez, on the other hand, would be risking five years in jail.
Despite the outward evidence of Castro-love, everyone is pretty negative about the government. Fidel and Raul try to blame everything on the embargo, but nobody's buying it. One guy told me that the smartest political move for the US would be to lift the embargo, because then the Castros would have no excuse for the squalor.
However, the weird thing is that they all still love Castro, or at least what Castro used to stand for. Batista was, by all accounts, a terrible leader. And the egalitarian ideals behind the movement were solid. But, according to every Cuban I spoke to, each year since Castro's magnificent victory on January 1st, 1959 has been a total disaster.
When people complained, I would try to argue the other side, saying that at least a morally accountable government is still in control of their country. But then I'd realise that, despite all the bullshit, we've got it way better than the Cubans do. The way it largely feels when you talk to people is that they don't have the opportunity for a good life, but they're not quite desperate enough to get that life with violence. So people spend their lives drinking rum, going to work when they feel like it and letting the bland food and noxious air kill them slowly. The Cubans aren't doing so well. They don't look so well, either.
Tourists in Havana face a similar hazy purgatory. The city is not underdeveloped or fucked-up enough to be interestingly primitive, but it's not developed enough to be pleasurably interesting. Rather, both the citizens and the tourists – despite Castro's strongest efforts to keep them apart – putz around together, aimlessly adrift in a limbo of low-mediocrity.
In the National Art Museum, there are some detailed paintings of Havana from the 1700s and 1800s. They're cartographical paintings, meant to serve more as an accurate snapshot of the city than as an artist's rendering – sort of like early satellite photographs. In these, Havana is a beautiful, bustling capital – a huge, high-functioning, diverse port city only 90 miles off the coast of Florida. The buildings all look new and glistening, the streets clean and full of shops. Compared to those images, contemporary Havana is a disaster site. The old, ornate buildings are crumbling and covered in grime, the shops closed and the port shut down. It's a sad image of what two relatively simple things, Communism and an embargo, can do to a great city in only 50 years.
But hey, at least the Mojitos are decent.
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