Thursday, January 7, 2016

Cuba Day One: We're Not In Kansas Anymore

This post will cover two days, since we had to spend a night in Mexico City in order to gain entry into Cuba. But to me, the extra time and trouble was worth it to visit a place that has so long and so openly fought against American overreach. It seems Cuba is the only place that ever really stood up to us and said, "You aren't that special. Sit down, son." So I had to go, and it seemed appropriate to do it without the permission of the American government.

We left LAX on Aeromexico at 1pm and landed in Mexico City at 7pm. Aeromexico was way beyond my expectations. They had TVs in every seat (we watched the new Vacation movie and the lady next to me at one point asked me what was so funny because I was laughing out loud), served full meals, and had really cool windows with no shades, but tint that we could control via a button. Why do American airlines suck so badly in comparison to every international airline ever?! Ugh.  Anyway, Mexico has this hilarious security system that makes you press a button. Like literally — there is a podium with a button. You push it. If you get green — you go on your merry way. If you get red — well, I don't know because we both got green.

Landing in Mexico City

We took a cab to the W Hotel Mexico City and had dinner at its new Jose Andres restaurant. It's one of those fancy gastro molecular places where all the food contained some sort of foam. We weren't impressed. We spent like 2,550 pesos and weren't even full. Later, when things got bad in Cuba, we joked, "well it least it isn't foam!"  

We didn't explore Mexico City, as we had to get up early. But what we saw was actually really nice. I would go back to see more!

W Hotel, Mexico City

The alarm went off at 6am and we cabbed back to the airport, pushed the button, and found our gate. Near the gates, there is an information desk that sells Cuban visas for $20 each. We bought our visas and officially had permission to enter Cuba (From Cuba. Not from the US.). The flight was a quick 3.5 hours (Aeromexico, with entertainment in each seat again). When we landed, the screens in our seats told us it was 165 degrees Fahrenheit in Havana. WHAT? LOL!

The minute we stepped off the jetway, I knew we weren't in Kansas anymore. The Havana airport looks exactly how I would picture a small Russian airport in 1970. Red, hard seats, no form — all function. No restaurants or bars, only a cold looking information desk. Interestingly, we had to have our bags scanned to LEAVE the airport in Havana. They have what I called "reverse security" -- which actually seems like a really smart idea. The Cuban immigration officials didn't even blink an eye. They didn't ask why we were visiting, and didn't stamp our passport. They only stamp the visa card. (Thanks, Cuba!)

Cuban Visa

Next we had to get Cuban money, at the booth right outside the airport. Before the trip, I had converted $800 into Canadian money, because I read that Americans get penalized when exchanging money. Adam brought $800 in American cash.  The Cuban dollar is called a CUC ("kook"), and one CUC is worth $.90. (Yes, even Cuban money is stronger than the dollar.) When we both converted our money, I got back 80 more CUCs than he did. So by converting to Canadian money first, I saved $88 American dollars over Adam. He didn't care, but it was an interesting experiment nonetheless. 

We took a cab to the Copacabana hotel, where we were supposed to pick up our rental car. We had prepaid $800 to ensure we would have a car. When we got there, the CubaCar booth was empty. So we sat on our suitcases in the parking lot and waited. And waited. Finally, a man showed up and told us they had no cars. Huh? We said we would be willing to take ANY car, even a tiny one. "No cars!," he said. We had a hotel reservation that night in Varadero, almost 3 hours away, which had also been prepaid. I started to panic, and walked around talking to people in the parking lot. A young man in the parking lot was standing next to a really rough looking '49 Chevy. He said he would take us to Varadero for 80 CUCs. Adam said "60 CUCs" and the kid said, "get in."

I was about to have my first real Cuban experience. That '49 Chevy had no AC (it was 90 degrees), no seat belts, and I felt every spring in that seat. But it was awesome. The driver's name was Yasiel, and he loved him some American music! In fact, his car stereo was nicer than mine, and somehow also played music videos on a screen. 

As we drove down the Malecon past Havana, Maroon 5's Sugar came on, and Yasiel cranked it up. It was then I realized that Cuba was nowhere near as cut off as I had been led to believe. 

About 1.5 hours down the road, Yasiel had to stop to put water in the car. I pretended not to be concerned. I bought $5 pina coladas in pineapples from a roadside stand... 

We drove 3 hours in this car!

...A roadside stand with a TV that was playing the CLEVELAND CAVALIERS GAME! Cuba is magical!

The Cavs game on TV in the middle of nowhere, Cuba. A bad signal, but still.

Back on the road again, it got dark. Suddenly, TSwift came on the radio. Adam told Yasiel that I love her, and Yasiel hit some kind of Cuban button that turned his car into a disco! LED lights started going off and we were in a '49 Chevy party car! 

But then things took a turn for the worse...

We finally arrived just after dark at the Starfish Cuatro Palmas hotel, checked in, and hit the buffet. The salad bar looked like someone saw a photo of one once and tried to recreate it. The lettuce to other stuff ratio was all wrong, and the toppings were all weird. The pasta bar had only olives, cheddar cubes, peas, and ham – which aren't even pasta toppings. And everything tasted old and bad. I had bread, butter, some pineapple and a cookie. A young server kept bringing us free drinks, including a weird blue drink and some awful wine. He said he loves the United States, and wants to live there someday. Then he told us that he always listens to "Welcome to the Hotel California." Awww.  His partner made a rose from a paper napkin & gave it to me. I realized that the people here are really nice, but nothing is up to American standards.

Starfish Cuatro Palmas, Varadero, Cuba

We walked on the beach in the dark. The sand was like powdered sugar and the water was warm. Then we walked the street a bit. We saw some super racist costumes at a salsa festival – big black bobble heads with huge lips. WTF. We went back to the hotel and had a few more drinks at the bar. I felt drunk but not normal drunk — I felt super weird. Adam said the booze "must be cut with formaldehyde." Great.  He was excited that they had whiskey. Until they served it to us and it tasted like rum. We desperately needed water, but bottled water was nowhere to be found. We bought the last small bottle from the vending machine and went to the room. The toilet in the room wouldn't flush. The towels were very thin and threadbare. They smelled clean, but had old stains. The soap was open/unwrapped, and the AC was weak. Nothing works right in Cuba!

Right before falling asleep I told Adam "Babe, I don't want to Cuba anymore."

Until mañana,


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