We packed up our stuff and fell asleep by midnight to wake up at 2:30 am for our 6 am flight. Madelena got up to see us off, hugged us goodbye, and told us she loved us. She said she loves all her guests. We believed her. A cab driver Alejandro had pre-arranged picked us up at 3 am and we drove the the airport in silence, lost in thoughts about the trip. The people, the colors, the cars. What a magical, weird, truly one-of-a-kind place.
We walked into the airport in Havana, got in line to check in, and heard Taylor Swift's Blank Space – twice — it was on a loop!! Cuba was obviously trying to get me to stay.
One last time, Cuba made me laugh with this sign in the airport. I have no idea what "white weapons" or "toug objects" are, or why you can't travel with a statue. HA!
We spent our last 60 CUCs on a cheese sandwich, coffee, a t-shirt and some other small souvenirs. We boarded our plane to Mexico City, and immediately fell asleep. When we woke up, it was daylight and we heard a long announcement in Spanish. Then heard, in English, "ladies and gentlemen, the Mexico City airport is closed. So we will wait." WTF.
Turns out it was because of fog. We circled for an hour, then landed. We had 8 hours in the Mexico City airport until our flight to LA. The airport is massive, so this wouldn't be a problem. The first thing we did was find Starbucks. Before the trip, we kept saying we wanted "to get to Cuba before Starbucks gets there." Then the whole time we were there, we wished there was a Starbucks. (Ok, it was just me, not Adam. But he sympathized.) We laughed when our bill came to $150 (that's pesos).
We took the air train to the terminal for American Airlines, did some booze tasting in the duty free stores (what? It's 9:30 am? Who cares! It's free!), and some shopping. We pirated wi-fi for a while until we got kicked off. Then we found a restaurant that would let us camp out, plug in, and use their wifi — while eating chips and salsa and drinking tea. It was heaven.
Our American Airlines flight had no TVs in the seats, or any other frills. Ugh. So we slept. When we landed in LA it was cold, but I was excited to sleep in my own bed and wash Cuba out of my hair. We both agreed we were glad we had gone, but we wouldn't go back.
The next morning, Adam took me out to breakfast because there was no food in the house. We kept adding things to the order and explaining to the waitress, "sorry – we were just in Cuba." She didn't get it. While we ate, we scrolled through all of our photos on our phones. I looked up at Adam and found he was looking at me already. I said, "I want to go back." And he answered, "I was just thinking the exact same thing."
Random observations about Cuba:
1. Cuban sandwiches (ham, pork, pickles, mustard) aren't a thing in Cuba.
2. Ice cream sucks in Cuba.
3. "Happy New Year" in Spanish (Feliz ano nuevo) is very close to "Happy Ass and Eggs" (feliz anus y huevos), so be careful.
4. Cubans have no concept of how big the US is. Time and time again, people would say, "You are from LA? Omg! My cousin lives in Boston!"
5. Cuba smells like poop. Pretty much the whole entire country smells like literal poop.
For anyone planning a trip to Cuba, here are my top 10 tips:
1. Don't even think about trying to rent a car. We were actually very lucky that our car fell through, because we would currently still be lost in the center of Cuba if we had one.
2. Don't go during the holidays. Flights were hard to get, and were expensive. Hotels/casas were even harder to get. If you can swing it, avoid holidays and go another time.
3. Don't EVER eat at an all inclusive place, or a government hotel (all of them) in Cuba. Once we bailed on our all inclusive and went to that steakhouse, we noticed that everybody there was wearing a different resort arm band, which tells me the food isn't better at any of the other all-inclusives.
4. Don't pay for anything with cash in advance. Always use a credit card to protect yourself, because plans WILL fall through in Cuba.
5. Skip the beach. It is not worth the struggle. If it is beach you want, go to the Bahamas.
6. Negotiate all prices in advance - cabs, bike cabs, meals where prices aren't printed, etc. And negotiate the price of all souvenirs.
7. Take lots and lots of American $1 bills. For the kids. Or take a boyfriend that has lots of $1 bills and is willing to give them to you.
8. Bring EVERYTHING you might need. Imodium, tampons, sunscreen, bandaids, etc. You will not be able to find any of those things in Cuba.
9. Don't stay at a hotel in Cuba. EVER. They are not even close to American standards. Stay at a casa particular, rent it through AirBNB.com, and carefully read all the reviews.
10. Go with the flow. Nothing will go as planned. It is ok. Cuba will take care of you.
Lessons I learned:
1. Now I get it. I understand why 80,000 Cubans have died trying to make it across 90 miles of sea to come to the US. I totally get why a mom would strap her kids to a raft and paddle out into the ocean. They don't want to be poor. They want to work to better their lives. We saw so many of them working so hard to make very little. But it is impossible to improve their lives under their system. They watch 24. They have CNN. They know what the US looks like and the things democracy allows us to earn and buy. They know we have things like ceilings and air conditioning. And they want those things too. Why should someone have so little based only on where they were born? If I lived there, I would probably strap my kid to an inner tube and take my chances too.
2. We've been fed a ton of propaganda BS our whole lives about America being the "greatest country on earth." It is not — by far. It is great in many ways, but I have a million examples of how things are better in other places, and how we could improve. Let's just take airports for now. The Mexico City airport was 10 times better than LAX – bigger, nicer, cleaner, more restaurants and stores. Airport security was way better even in Cuba than in the US. We got scanned coming and going. Cuba found, and took, my cuticle clippers — which made it out of both LAX and Mexico City. Neither Cuba or Mexico cared about taking us off shoes to go through security, but made our iPhones get scanned separately, not in a purse. Their planes were far more modern, with way better service and amenities. As I travel, I always make a mental list of all this stuff. I wish there was a "make America better" board of directors to which I could send all my ideas.
3. As I've said many times, travel changes your perspective. I swear I will never complain about the bathroom at work again. I will appreciate things I have so much more. And not even big things like my iPhone or my car. Cuba even made me appreciate little things like bathtubs, iced tea and elevators and so much more. I have always been a fan of Target, but now I also feel grateful to be able to just run to the store and get whatever I need. I hadn't been to Target in 3 weeks when I finally went, and I saw it with new eyes. I walked through every aisle and fought back tears thinking about just how lucky we really are.
4. No system is perfect. Cuba is broken. Man, is it broken. But there are still things they do right, and even do way better than us. They have one of the highest literacy rates in the world. College is free, and so is healthcare — so they never have student loans or medical debt. Their love of music and art is an inspiration. Violent crime is nonexistent there. Seriously — compared to other neighboring countries, their crime rate is astonishingly low. And Cubans, while impoverished, are happy. They are open, friendly, and place a lot of value on their families. Those are all lessons we in the good old US of A could learn from.
5. No matter how much you looked forward to a trip, or how amazing it was, by the end, you always want to go home.
Hope you enjoyed our adventures in Cuba!