A Week in Cuba



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So, my original plan was to post a regular travel journal over the month of July as I, er, travelled, but that plan got thrown out the window on the first day. I've collected the my first week of posts here, and... well, we'll see about posting smaller chunks in the future.

Tuesday, July 4th

Well, it's my first night in Cuba. So far... hmm. Its not that I'm not excited to be here, looking forward to the week, or anything like that. But going so far as to say "so far, so good"? Eh, not quite; this trip has started off a bit rocky.

First off, the root of most of my issues today and likely many more going forward? No phone coverage here. I know, I know, that's normally pretty well expected when visiting a foreign country that isn't quite first-world or whatever politically-correct term we're calling it nowadays. But I have Project Fi, and I checked their website and was assured they'd have service here, and planned accordingly. Maybe I misread it, I can't be sure, but I'm fairly confident. Calling, texting, data, you name it. I can't exactly check now, either. Obviously. Maybe they have service in some areas of Cuba? Mind, if they have no service in Varadero or Havana... well, I'd be shocked if they covered anywhere else.

So, problems that caused: well, for one, not a single taxi driver at the airport knew where my hotel was. Other than, you know: in Havana. And I couldn't pull up a map to show them because -- in addition to having no cell coverage -- there is no public wifi. A single one of the taxi drivers, their coordinator (I think?), had a map pre-loaded on his phone, but when he searched for "Bella Habana", he clicked the wrong result, and absolutely refused to try again or let me point out which one I meant. Eventually, I found a driver that seemed to have a rough idea and was willing to stop for directions when we got nearby. One short pantomime, one long car ride, and many many halting conversation in broken Spanish later, we made it to the hotel.

Which reminds me of the second major issue. My Spanish is NOWHERE NEAR close to fluent. I don't know what the fuck my high school Spanish teacher was doing in grade eleven telling me I was fluent, and whatever test she had me write that "proves it" was clearly something entirely different. Honestly, I don't even understand; I know I could understand every word she said, answer any question she asked, hold a conversation about any topic she brought up. I'm pretty confident I haven't forgotten too much since then, my vocab seems to be what I remember. But holy shit-balls Batman, a good 90% of the words these people are speaking sound nothing like I remember. My best guess is my teacher taught us the Spanish equivalent of made-up baby-talk and a small, esoteric vocabulary of unused words. Everything I say seems to get odd looks and muddled comprehension, even when I'm really damn sure I said what I meant to say.

I'm gonna be honest, there was a while tonight where I genuinely thought I'd fucked up royally and they speak something other than Spanish here. Obviously that's not the case, but... well, this week is gonna be interesting, put it that way. The accents don't help either; I'm pretty sure my taxi driver dropped the third letter of every word. Yeah, you read that right.

So, on the way to the hotel, I asked my taxi driver how much the ride was gonna cost and whether he'd mind if I could pay in USD. Keep in mind the above language barrier while I tell you about this conversation that took us about ten, maybe fifteen minutes, by the way. He quoted more than I had, so I asked if he'd mind stopping at a bank first. He said the banks were closed this late (9pm or so), but he'd be willing to come back tomorrow. That sounded fantastic to me.

Well, turns out that wasn't quite what was understood on his side. My best guess is he was telling me that he would go to the bank tomorrow, so therefore paying in USD was perfectly fine. Lovely. Fortunately, I had a bunch of Canadian as well, so we figured something out after he pulled someone aside and asked them what they think Canadian Dollars were worth in Cuban Pesos.

If only I had my phone plan, eh?

I... probably overpayed for the cab ride, Hell maybe I got scammed, I'm genuinely not sure at this point. Seems like the fare was... somewhat reasonable? I really have no standards to go by here, so mostly I'm just hoping. Either way, it doesn't much matter at this point. If only I had some way to use my phone to find out what the fare should have been. NO I AM NOT BITTER.

Once I got into the hotel, the fun continued; the receptionist wanted the voucher they emailed me in order to sign in. That's fine, I have it on my phone, let me just pull it up -- oh wait, again, no cell plan, can't open the PDF. Mind, I can see the actual body of the email, where they stuffed four pages of marketing material, perfectly fine. The more clever amongst you may be noticing a trend here.

Fortunately, THANK GOD, the receptionist spoke some English. Not much, mind, but between her broken English and my broken Spanish we figured it out.

Okay, now that I got the ranting out of the way, let's think about the good things that have happened so far. Given it was a day filled with plane rides, don't expect too much here.

Let's see... I overheard two maybe-twenty-year-old guys walking through the Montreal airport today. One said to the other "Well, of course I know I'm racist, that's why I'm single". You have to hand it to the kid; at least he's self-aware.

Speaking of going through the Montreal airport, side note, it's an odd thing to have flown Winnipeg -> Montreal -> Cuba. Couple things stick out:

  1. I "learned" (read: "did not learn") those languages in that order, which I thought was a neat little coincidence.
  2. The Montreal -> Cuba leg where we were being told how to fill in Spanish forms in French? As far as I could tell, many of the passengers were pretty damn confused. I was mostly fine -- at least my French teacher actually taught me the actual language -- but for some reason Air Canada didn't seem to have staffed any native English-speaking flight attendants, so there was even more broken fumbling in language going on there.
  3. In Montreal I was joined by, and often confused for being a part of, something called "S Trip", which seems to be a Canada-wide party for high school graduates where they all hang out in Cuba for a week. Sounds super fun, but I definitely wasn't that loud and obnoxious when I was a teenager. Kids these days.

Odd weather patterns while we were driving into Havana: it was thundering and lightning-ing the entire time, but there was no rain at all. Then, very suddenly, there would be a torrential downpour for about five, maybe ten minutes, followed by an equally abrupt stop. This happened about three times along the way -- the thunder and lightning continued the entire time. During one of the downpours, my taxi driver pointed out a motorcyclist and laughed.

Setting my alarm for tomorrow took non-zero effort. I'm not sure how, given the no-cell-service thing, but it looks like my phone did update to the correct timezone at some point during the taxi ride. Bit of luck for me; due to a series of unfortunate events™ my watch is no longer synced to my phone, so that gives me a nice, constant reference point to be sure of.

I took a walk down the main (? ish?) street near the hotel once I settled in. Cool buildings to see, but nothing that I'd be returning to within about a twenty minute walk on either side of the hotel. Hopefully I just picked the wrong directions to explore. Its fucking hot, even at midnight; I love it, but I should have bought sandals.

So, things to do tomorrow, besides the obvious "explore and enjoy myself":

  • get a physical map of the city
  • find an internet cafe (if they exist? The receptionist here just laughed and shooked her head when I asked if there was anywhere nearby to get wifi. My thought at the time was just that the hotel doesn't have wifi, but in retrospect I haven't found anyone with internet access yet...) to
    • check on Fi, maybe I just need to enable some roaming-in-Cuba setting?
    • look up all the stuff that I really should have checked before I got the impression I could use my phone here
    • make sure people (such as the future landlord expecting a response this week) know I will be out-of-contact for a while
  • find a bank

So, in summary... fuck it: ignore everything I just wrote. This is fantastic; it's been ages since I've plopped myself down in a new city to explore and just see what happens. Would it be better if I had data when I needed it? If it wasn't so hot I was sweating like a pig when I went for a midnight walk? If I could speak the language even half as well as I thought? Absolutely. Will that dampen my fun? Not one iota.

Wednesday, July 5th

Quick morning update before I head out. Breakfast (at the hotel) was tasty; I didn't know what half the stuff was, which was half the fun, but it was all delicious. The coffee was terrible, but eh, it was coffee. I'm not one to complain about the nectar of the Gods.

I got myself a map from the front desk, which I'm currently looking over. Its one of those tourist maps, with only the various interesting chunks of the city shown. No idea yet where they are in relation to each other. I found where I am in one of the sections, though, so at least I have some idea of how to get to interesting nearby places.

The map cost me two pesos (1 CUC == $1 USD), which required I find myself a bank nearby first. Bit of an issue there, turns out they will not exchange American money for pesos if the American money has even the slightest rip or tear. Given I brought a few hundred in very slightly torn American money, this might be a problem. The teller found a single $20 bill they were willing to accept. And... my debit card was declined at the ATM outside. I'm going to assume it was because I was using an American one.

So much for my perfect plan of staying in Canada until my Canadian accounts were drained and then travelling to drain my American accounts.

Upon further inspection, it seems my Canadian credit card is the only way I have to get money here. Kind of unfortunate given it's converting CAD -> USD -> CUC and thus costing me roughly one metric shit-ton per peso, but there's not much I can do about that. Note to self: transfer money to Canada before my next credit card bill.

I ended up biting off... less?... than I could chew. The distances here deceived me, I finished my loop around the chunk of the city and ended up back around the hotel around 1 PM. Took a nice siesta, and here we are.

Which reminds me. My taxi driver from last night had pointed out a group of people playing music and drinking and called it a siesta. Am I the one that is wrong? Nah, that can't be right.

Anyway, I'm loving the architecture around here. The vast majority of everything is run down and half-broken, which just makes the few well-maintained monuments and such that much more impressive. I headed North today, and saw a bunch of churches, a massive graveyard (something like six by eight city blocks), and then sat by the Ocean a while. Note to self: bring a book next time, that'd be a great place to read for a few hours.

It took me a bit to get a hang of my bearings, did you know they use rocks as street signs? Very nice rocks, I'm sure, but I certainly wasn't checking on the ground behind overgown shrubs to figure out what street I was on at first. Looks like they used whatever rock of decent size they could find nearby for the signs; kind of makes walking around the city into a scavenger hunt.

Interestingly, not all street corners are marked off. Invariably, the ones that are are four-way stops: each of the corners has a rock, and each rock has only one street name, with matching pairs diagonally across the intersection. As far as I've been able to tell, the street-sign-rocks have to be read clockwise around the intersection.

I saw a massive monument off to the East on my way back to the hotel, which I'll probably check out either tonight or tomorrow. That'll probably be my plan for tomorrow actually, is to head Eastish to that coast and see what's that way; looks like there's a bunch more monuments, museums, art galleries, and such that way.

Not sure where I'll head for dinner yet; there's a huge market with a bunch of shops and restaurants somewhat nearby, I might head there. A bunch of the people I chatted with today recommended a place called "Centro Vasco" for dinner, which is right about at the farthest point I was today, maybe an hour walk from here. Bit far, but maybe I'll check it out. If not today, tomorrow.

That said, looping back to the hotel probably wasn't such a bad idea. Walking for four plus hours (minus some sitting by the Ocean and on a patio for a beer) under the hot Cuban sun sure took it out of me. Maybe being indoors for the couple hottest hours in the middle of the day is a good call... we'll see. I'm sure my tolerance for this heat will be much better within a day or two.

Chatted with a bunch of people around the city while I was out and had a bit more success in communication. Still a struggle for anything complex, but... eh, at least I can get the point across.

Thursday, July 6th

So much for that plan. I took my painkillers & antibiotics for the evening (woo wisdom teeth surgery) and they put me right out until morning. Today was a lot more fun, though.

I started walking East, towards the Jose Marti monument. Apparently, the massive marble tower in the middle of the city isn't meant to be viewed from too closely, though; when I started approaching the large greenspace surrounding it, I got waved away by two soldiers. Yeah, I'm not touching any piece of that. The view from afar was good enough for me, thanks. Did I mention yet that most of the soldiers (police, I suppose) around here carry machineguns? Mmhm, staying far away from that monument, thank you very much.

Anyway, I walked a bit further and found the National Public Library. Sadly, foreigners are only allowed to walk down one central hallway, where they've arranged a bunch of displays. Some very cool pictures, posters, and books along there, mind. More of a museum than a library, though. Also, not very "Public".

After the library, I continued Eastward and started chatting with a musician. Turns out he is performing tomorrow evening; he gave me the address and, once we got to talking, offered to find me a saxophone so I could play with him. The offer sounds fun to me, plan is to head over there tomorrow night.

He showed me around town a bit and took me into Central Havana, which sees a lot less tourism than the rest of the city. Some very cool architecture through there. We grabbed a phenomenal lunch and I bought some cigars for gifts (Fresh from the factory! That... almost certainly doesn't make them any better than store-bought. Cheaper, though!).

On my way back, I got to chatting with a different guy who offered to trade me local pesos for converted pesos. And, yes, it's technically a rip-off, I know the exchange rate. But, then again, foreigners also aren't technically allowed to get local pesos, so I don't much mind paying a few bucks for a cool keepsake.

Friday, July 7th

Well, it should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that I am not quite as good at soprano sax as I am at tenor, especially given it's been years since I've played seriously. That said, the concert was fantastic! I had a wonderful time; we played on a stage right next to the ocean, late enough in the evening that I wasn't sweating my balls off.

There's such a great atmosphere here for music, for dancing... I love it. There's bar after bar along the coast with stages set up every night -- though it seems like Friday and Saturday are the busiest nights. There's also a massive stage a bit farther away where the "best music" is played, according to my shitty Spanish-English translation abilities. I'll probably check it out tomorrow night.

Backing up a bit, my plan today was to head to the club for the concert way early to make sure I found it and then hang out in that area for a while, see what's around there, sit by the ocean a while, maybe read a bit.

Literally none of that ended up happening.

About halfway from my hotel to the club, I got into a conversation with some guy on the street, named Santiago. He ended up showing me around a bunch; one very cool thing he showed me was a very out-of-the way street where an artist had painted the entirety of the street. The whole place was phenomenal, the street, the sides of the houses, all painted, with a bunch of paintings hanging all around, as well. The artist himself was around, too, apparently he loves to paint in public with people watching and admiring.

My understanding is there are daily art classes for children there and the entire thing is some massive community art project -- fantastic!

A ways away, Santiago showed me to a bar that had some wonderful drinks; Hemingways, he called them. I'll have to look up the ingredients later. Interestingly, the bar was filled with tourists; apparently this was very abnormal, since we weren't really anywhere near the tourist areas of the city. Turns out a bunch of them had basically stumbled across the place at random.

From what I recall, there was a couple from Venezuela (originally from England), a girl from Poland, a couple from France, and a guy from Wisconsin. Not sure what the odds are we all stumbled into the same bar at the same time, given what area of the city we were in, but it was a fun time nonetheless. First time I've spoken English in a few days, too, which was a very odd feeling.

For dinner, we went to Santiago's favorite restaurant, which was actually somewhat near my hotel. I knew there was a benefit to getting a hotel in the city instead of in tourist central! I never would have even known it was a restaurant without him, the entrance looks no different than the houses surrounding it. As far as I could see, there was no sign for the place or anything. But, eh, they make a delicious chicken breast for only a few bucks, so I might have to go back at some point.

I ran into two ladies from New York earlier in the day; they were asking around to find "wifi cards", which they explained were how you can access the internet in this country. Given the people I've asked about that haven't mentioned these cards, and that the New Yorkers have apparently been searching for five days now with no luck, I don't think that sounds very likely. They also mentioned "wifi parks", though they had no idea what those actually were besides the obvious guess based on the name. I'll ask around, but I'm not going to put much stock in it.

There was one thing about Santiago that confused me all day, that took me far too long to figure out. Its blatantly obvious in retrospect, but at the time... well. Let's just say I must not have been thinking clearly today.

Let's see; I told Santiago about the concert tonight and let him know where it was, since he seemed very interested in music. He said something about how many girls in Cuba loved to dance at these concerts, and I made some quip about flirting being difficult when you don't speak the same languages. He laughed, and I thought he understood. Oh boy, was I wrong.

Fast-forward about an hour, we're walking through Old Havana and he starts speaking to this girl; gorgeous, I've gotta admit, an absolute knock-out. I didn't understand much of the conversation, but he introduced me, chatted with her a while, then took down her number and mentioned the concert. She seemed pretty enthused about that. Now, at first I thought he had just seen someone he recognized, but by the end of the conversation it seemed more like he'd found himself a date for the evening -- hey, good for him.

Fast-forward another hour or two, when we're sitting around after dinner. We had drinks, cigars, and we were sitting around killing time. He joked about how much it costs to have a girlfriend, and I commiserated, and then he asked for a more precise estimate on how much it costs to have a girlfriend in Canada. I had him rephrase a few times, since that sentence didn't quite make sense to me, and it only really clicked when he said, "For example, in Havana it costs 40 CUC to have a girlfriend for one night." Or, as we call it: to hire a hooker.

I'm gonna be honest, even then I didn't make the connection that the girl from earlier was a hooker until we parted ways after dinner. I'd thought he was going to join me and meet the girl there, but he begged off as being tired and made sure to remind me to go back to that street corner for the girl tonight after the concert.

So, yeah. That's the story of how someone tried to hire a hooker for me. I'm gonna be honest here, that was quite literally one of the last things I would have expected.

Saturday, July 8th

I spent the night listening to music at the massive stage I mentioned earlier. Calling it "the best music" might be over-reaching a bit, but it was certainly a wonderful evening. The latin jazz here feels like the life-blood of the people, there's no one around the city who doesn't hang out at a stage like this at least now and then. Far cry from back home, where it's completely reasonable to have not seen any live music in the past month.

As for earlier in the day, mostly I stumbled around with the rough goal of figuring out what those "wifi parks" are. I came across a park in the middle of the city where everyone (read: about five people) was on their phone, but they were using it for making phone calls and my phone didn't pick up any nearby networks. I... doubt that's what the term means, given the lack of wifi and all that, but mostly I'm just more confused now than I was yesterday.

I'm starting to see what those ladies from New York were saying; every time I ask about these "wifi parks" I'm told to go a few blocks in a certain direction. When I ask about it when I get there, I'm told to go a few blocks in a different direction. They're all very assured as soon as I say "wifi park", and it definitely feels like they understand completely. Its as if the entire city lives under the idea that these "wifi parks" are a few blocks away, but no one has ever actually been there. I'm really looking forward to Googling this next week.

One of the lovely ladies I met while dancing last night knew a surprising amount of English, so I was finally -- finally! -- able to figure out what the hell is going on here with regards to how difficult it has been to communicate. Turns out it's mostly an accent thing -- whatever the hell my taxi driver's accent was notwithstanding, everyone else around here basically just has a very thick accent.

My understanding of Spanish was that one of its key attributes is that every letter is pronounced the same in all cases. Apparently, in Cuba at least, this is not the case. Not only are those pronunciations different than I was taught, but they are not nearly as consistent. There's also something where if you speak two words in a row and the first ends with the same letter the second begins with, you change half of both words completely? I think?

For my best example of this, take the word for avenue: avenida. Then, take two street names I've come across: Conill and Aohly. Each of those three words is pronounced by the locals more or less how I was taught, but put them together and you get: "Avenida Conill" and "Avenuhly". I've had a couple people name those two streets, just to be sure this isn't a one-off thing.

I've got nothing.

I was also told that Cubans who work on the resorts that foreigners tend to visit are actually taught to speak what we consider Spanish instead of their own version. Like, they have to take classes for this and everything, so that they can pretend that the Spanish we (try to) speak is their native language.

Which is, you know, hilarious and insane all at the same time, but at least I'm no longer quite as confused. Or, rather, I'm just as confused but at least now I have search terms.

I also should apologize to my high school Spanish teacher for my rant near the beginning of this journal:

Senorita Rivera, if you're reading this, lo siento para estoy un estudiante idioto. It's not you that was wrong, it's this country. Much love from your favorite student, Kevin.

Sunday, July 9th

I walked Westward today, the only direction I haven't really explored yet. Very glad I did, the number of parks and nice open places to sit, open patios on the river, and so on is fantastic. And by parks, I certainly don't mean "wifi parks" -- I checked. At this point, I've long since given up on finding them. Google will tell me more soon.

So, today was a nice, calm day. I spent the vast majority of it just sitting around, reading, letting the city wash over me. It was... tranquil, in the best possible way.

I still can't get over the price range in this city; for a meal in the touristy part of town, it might cost you up to twenty dollars for a decent plate and a drink. Around where I was today, I got an entire pizza and a drink for $3.25. Clearly prices for locals and prices for foreigners, eh?

I realized too, today, that I no longer notice the smell of the city. That's... pretty impressive, really. To be honest, the entire city smells incredibly strongly like a peculiar mix of feces and sweat, with a little bit of rotten garbage thrown in to taste. After half a week, though, I'm completely used to it. That's probably not a good thing, but I sure bet the air will smell sweet when I land in Texas.

I'll probably head out and find another fiesta tonight, the night is still young and I have one more not-so-early morning before my flight. Wow, where have the days gone? Only one more day of Cuba. Huh.

Monday, July 10th

The sunsets here are really quite spectacular. I don't know what it is about this place, but I know it must have something to do with the clouds. It doesn't matter how clear and sunny, or how cloudy and rainy, or anywhere in between the day was, somehow the sky is always filled with billowing clouds in the half-hour before sunset.

And when the sun actually sets? When, in other countries we get a few minutes of vivid reds streaking across the sky and then nothing? That's not what happens here.

I've never seen the sun here, at sunset, it's always behind clouds. But in that moment, the clouds all across the sky are lit up -- the most fantastic shapes forming intricate silhouettes across each other. And the show doesn't end there; when those images fade, the entire sky remains streaked with fierce reds for longer than seems reasonable.

I haven't seen all of Havana, not by a long shot, let alone all of Cuba. But what I did manage to see in my short week here? The people, the culture, the architecture, the food, the music... I won't be forgetting this any time soon.

As always, this article is available on GitHub. Comments (ie. issues) are welcome!