Taxi? Amigo, Taxi? TAXI!? - La Habana, Cuba
With a slight (and when I say slight, I mean massive) sense of trepidation, I was on a flight to Havana. Cuba has such a reputation, which is, in reality, an undeserved reputation, but nevertheless, a reputation that it’s not such a straight-forward place to visit. Touching down, I was expecting to receive the Spanish inquisition as to my motives for visiting, several intensive (and intrusive) strip searches not to mention a free lesson in Communism and why it’s so great. Well, I got none of it, and as I meandered through customs, so began my adventure in Cuba (where I quickly learnt the first of many important lessons.) I’ll say it straight away - everyone should visit Cuba, it is a truly remarkable place, but be prepared for a massive culture shock if you’re at all used to a Western way of life. For starters, don’t take US Dollars with you as your currency. It seems obvious, considering the well documented ‘issues’ between Cuba and the US, but even if you’re coming from the US (or anywhere that uses USD) try and prepare yourself with either Canadian dollars, Euros or Sterling. The USD has even less value in Cuba than most other places in the world (which is really saying something.) Cuban currency can be pretty complicated - there are two currencies, one the ‘Cuban peso’, which is the moneda nacional and can only be used by residents of Cuba, and the ‘Cuban Convertible Peso’ (CUC) which is no less than 24 times less valuable than the regular peso. It can also only be used in certain shops and restaurants and was introduced as a way of increasing the flow of tourist money in to the country*. With CUC in hand, it was time for a taxi to my casa particulares in the area of Havana called Cerro.
Accomodation in Cuba is available in two guises: 1) Big, fancy and expensive hotels, often circa 1950s era or 2) casa particulares, which is moreorless the spare bedroom of a private household and is by far the cheaper option. However CPs are closely monitored by the government (as is virtually everything in Cuba) to such an extent that CP owners must pay the government a premium to even be allowed to offer the room for rent. They tend to make additional money by offering breakfast and dinner, but it is true that staying in a CP is a great way to meet the locals. Don’t even think about staying in any of the non-Government sanctioned CPs. You might save yourself a few CUC at the time, but when you come to leave Cuba, they check the places you have stayed and if things don’t line up neatly, you can expect, well, you can probably figure that out for yourself.
I had booked ‘Ramiros House’ online, which, despite the uninspiring name, was a good choice - Ramiro is an English teacher at the University of Habana, which helped to drop the language barrier. I was already ripped off on the taxi fare, paying 25CUC when it should have only been 20CUC, despite using the airport service to find the taxi. (I think he got his, however, as he was stopped for speeding en route. Although he did then continue to drive at the same speed, so he most likely didn’t learn a lesson, despite grumbling to himself for the remainder of the high-speed trip.)
First impressions of Habana are generally mixed. It is overrun with derelict buildings, stray dogs and rubbish in the street. The roads are potholed and most corners have a group of people idly hanging about on them. Habana is split vaguely in to three areas - residential (Cerro and Vedado), Old Habana and New and Central Habana. Old Habana is generally acknowledged as the place to be, although I spent a day walking around the lot. First stop was the first of many _plaza_s usually of the de la Revolucion variety which generally house a lot of immaculately kept and restored monuments, statues, museums, churches and government buildings. You can’t go anywhere in Cuba, and I mean, literally walk more than a few blocks, without being reminded of some of the great heroes in Cuba’s history and the main 4 or 5 men are massively revered across the entire country. There are still many remnants of the (predominantly) Spanish occupation, as well as the American occupation, but Castro has really done his utmost to wrest the grip of the country firmly in to Cuban hands. The Jose Marti memorial on the plaza is quite striking, but totally ruined by a hideous stone obelisk that towers squarely behind it. Looking out from the plaza is an enormous mural of Che Guevara. Tip: don’t try and take photos of government buildings if they have men with machine guns patrolling the grounds. I was politely informed that it was not permitted, and I believed him.
Without wishing to be horribly cynical, Havana simply didn’t thrill me. For sure, there are many parts which are beautiful but I found the majority of areas uninspiring. The Capitolio building is quite beautiful, and behind it you can tour a cigar factory. And when I say factory, I mean a big room. And when I say tour, I mean wander around, watching them make cigars. The Cathedral is equally beautiful, but other than that, I was left with an overriding sense of the poverty in which most people in Cuba live. You are permanently harangued by people trying to sell you one thing or another and it can get aggressive and extremely annoying. The streets are literally lined with people selling some tat, usually from the doorstep of their house. Shops are an unusual experience, in that they are not a shop in the sense that you would normally expect. Not only are the shelves quite bare of most basic commodities, but you don’t actually wander the shop and select what you want to buy. You will enter the shop, be stopped by a glass counter and then tell the keeper what you would like. Although most shops are generally crowded by locals scoping out what new supplies have turned up and there is certainly no concept of queuing up in an orderly fashion. A pleasant side effect is that you won’t see any of the ‘usual’ sights - certainly no McDonald’s, Starbucks or Nike, but this comes at the expense of some bare essentials.
Ownership of anything in Cuba is an alien concept - houses are not owned by their ‘owners’ - they are merely given a license to live there. Should you wish to move house, then you need to find someone (through the vast amounts of appropriate paperwork) who is willing to swap with you. The same is true of cars, and the vast majority of cars on the road are ancient contraptions, held together with stickyback plastic, cable ties, chewing gum and a large amount of Cuban ingenuity, since spare parts are essentially unavailable. There are many of the old school American gaz guzzlers - Chevvies and Fords - although few are in as pristine condition as the guidebooks will have you believe, not to mention the scarcity of fuel means most are running on fumes.
I never once felt unsafe walking the streets but nevertheless my planned 5 days in Havana were quickly whittled down to barely 3, and my good fortune at selecting Ramiro as my host paid dividends as he was able to propose an excellent route to other parts of Cuba, not to mention CPs all along the way. Other people I have spoken to have a totally different opinion of Havana, so it quite likely suffers from Marmite Syndrome. But I was content with my short stay there, and was soon on a coach to Cienfuegos.
- Aka Government coffers