Five Days in Havana: Part Four
This post will be the last in my Havana series. In it, I’ll discuss my observations of life in Havana and Cuba.
Customs in Cuba was a breeze, but once through, the airport was chaotic. Customs deposits you outside where loads of people line up to greet their loved ones upon arrival. I was approached immediately by a taxi driver. I lost my nerve to negotiate and agreed to pay him 30CUC (the equivalent of $30) for a ride to Havana Vieja. Even if you don’t negotiate, always ask the driver how much your ride will cost. The one time I didn’t do that, I paid $15 for a ride of fewer than two miles. I was pissed.
Once in the taxi, I realized there were no seatbelts, so I said a little prayer to the Universe as we sped away. The “highway” was pretty interesting with cars on the same road with bikes, motorcycles with sidecars, box trucks and horse-drawn wagons. We passed covered bus stops, and there were many people utilizing the sidewalk along this road. I imagine they would’ve found the Pinellas Trail (a local 47-mile-long dedicated bike trail) to be quite extravagant.
I tried to text my AirBNB host, but I soon discovered that I would not be able to send him any texts on the trip. I was sure Verizon’s website had said I could text. I tried several configurations of his phone number but ended up calling him instead. That was challenging because he spoke very little English. We did manage to communicate that I was on my way from the airport and we would meet at the apartment.
The weather in Cuba is somewhat like Florida. There’s hot and hotter, and then there’s rain. Unlike Florida, where we get one or two hours of rain every day in the summer, Cuba will be an entire afternoon of torrential downpour. It kept me inside for most of my last day there. One thing I found interesting was that some of the rooftops had drains that poured down onto the street, carefully angled so as to miss the sidewalks. Here’s a photo.
My AirBNB host pointed out a bank up the street where I could exchange money. I encountered a queue there… outdoors. The banks in Cuba are government-owned. Guards stand at the doors and let a couple people in at a time to pay their taxes or do their banking. I stood in the heat for over two hours chatting with a tourist couple (US expats living in Ecuador because they couldn’t afford to retire in the States) and an interesting local guy. Eventually, the local guy asked if we were just changing money. He said to go down to Obispo and use a money changer. Aghast that I had spent half the morning in the heat for no reason, I walked with the couple down to Obispo. We didn’t see any money changers, so we went into a hotel to inquire. The hotel changed our money. Here’s a photo of another bank I passed and the line of people outside.
There are two currencies in Cuba, which makes it a bit confusing. Cuba previously used the US dollar, but when the US imposed its worst sanctions, Cuba moved to the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). However, this currency is really only used for tourists. The “local” currency is the Cuban peso (CUP). One CUC is worth 25 CUP. If you don’t pay attention, you will pay 10 CUC for something that only costs 10 CUP. Or an honest local will become annoyed because you’re trying to pay basically 250 CUP for something that only costs 7 CUP, and now they have to make change for you. (I felt bad after I realized what I’d done.)
Shopping opportunities in Havana are very limited, and shopping is an eerie experience. You see a storefront that appears to be a grocery-type store, but instead of packed aisles, there are a half dozen display cases with a few types of a couple dozen different products. That’s it. The rest of the store is empty. There’s no browsing or touching. You must ask one of several people to retrieve an item for you, like when you’re buying jewelry. I went in a 2-floor department store. I walked up to the second floor, and it was a giant, empty room with a few display cases. Here’s a photo:
There are only a few, small “shopping centers” in all of Havana. Like everything else in Havana, the one I visited was overwhelming. It was like walking into a Japanese anime pinball machine. The entire mall was one not-overly-large room with 4 floors and no air conditioning. I would’ve tried to go up and see what some of the stores were, but, instead of stairs at various locations to get from floor to floor, there was one long ramp that took you from bottom to top. It was so hot in there that I couldn’t imagine getting halfway up this winding ramp and deciding I needed out immediately and having to walk around the room a few times to get down. I took a photo instead.
Most people are on the take in Havana. If someone talks to you, they want to sell you something. A couple times, a local asked me for the time. I didn’t think much of it because I thought maybe they didn’t have a phone or couldn’t afford a watch. As soon as you answer and they hear the sweet, sweet American accent, they will try to sell you something. I was suckered into buying Cohibas this way.
Not including the hucksters, there is a lot of cottage industry in Cuba. Since it’s hard to obtain things, many people make money fixing things. There are also plenty of street food vendors. AirBNB must enormously improve the financial situation of many Cubanos.
The government owns all the utilities in Cuba. People pay for their individual electricity usage. The guys I stayed with have at least one mini-split air conditioner. That seems like a luxury there, but it’s offset by their AirBNB income. While I was eating dinner one night at a restaurant, the lights pulsed. Later that same night, the electricity blipped off at the hotel whose lobby I was visiting. Apparently Cuba experiences rolling blackouts due to their precarious economic situation. I’m sure people’s newfound ability to purchase air conditioning is not helping. In the peak summer months, they sometimes implement electricity rationing. Imagine being there in August as a tourist and being told you can’t use the air conditioning! Yikes!
I’m not sure I 100% understood, but I think my host said that water from the government is only available for 5 hours per day. Their building also has an in-ground cistern. According to what I’ve read, Cuba’s reservoirs are running low and over 100,000 people in Havana rely on water delivery. Perhaps this is where the cistern comes in. Below are some photos of the water catchment systems that are scattered across the rooftops of Havana. In the first photo, I swear there’s a washing machine outside on the roof next to the laundry line.
My hosts had a modern tank water heater and a compact clothes washing machine. They lived similarly to someone in Europe, except without books and the internet! (Also, one of my hosts say it’s sometimes difficult to get a Visa to travel, and you’re given no reason when you are declined.)
While the buildings may look scary, neighborhood life in Havana is very friendly. Around dinner time, people open their doors right onto the street to get fresh air. You’ll walk down a sidewalk and be looking right into someone’s dining room, with their table only a few feet away from you. Although the streets and buildings are a bit treacherous to navigate, I felt perfectly safe there even at night. (This could also be because I have a strange absence of fear in cities!) Also, to be fair, this city has multiple police/military officers on almost every street corner. You probably don’t want to commit a crime here.
As of yet, Havana is no place for a web developer to live. Internet is not something that an individual can afford to have in their residence, other than on your cell phone through your cellular provider. And, even then, I’m guessing data is prohibitively expensive. Internet is something you use in public there. Hotels, parks, and other public locations offer wifi that you can access by purchasing a one-hour access card. Lucky me, my phone simply would not find the wifi signal. I have no idea why. My Chromebook, however, would. Even when you buy a card, you may be told, “The wifi isn’t working right now.” It’s a complete crap shoot.
While Havana was a textured and interesting place, I think I’ll pick a first-world country for my next adventure.