Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Cuba Day 7: Adios, Cuba!

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!

Cuba Day 6: Falling in Love

We enjoyed the same breakfast again at Casa Telephonica. Tortillas dipped in eggs are brilliant. Today, Adam wanted to ride the ferry across to the old fort area, to get views of Havana back across the water. We asked a guard at an information desk inside a hotel how to find the ferry and he had no clue. The other guard started telling him where the ferry was, and they started arguing about it. Loudly. They gave us a sense of which direction to head, but continued to yell at each other. Adam and I backed away slowly and decided to take our chances finding it on our own.  We eventually found it, but it did not look like a ferry that we wanted to get on. Like everything else in Cuba, the word "ferry" does not mean what we envision in our heads. It looked like a 70 year old lobster boat from the Bering Sea.  So we decided to get on the open top bus instead.

We call this a "6-pack" photo

In most cities, the open-top bus runs about $30, allows you to plug in some earbuds and select your language from 10 choices and listen privately as you tour around. In Cuba, it costs $10, and they scream at you over a loudspeaker in both Spanish and English. Oy. 

A 10-pack

Typical street scene in Havana

We took a two hour tour around the city, and drove past the new American Embassy, which just opened there last September, for the first time since 1960. That's it on the right in the photo below. Somehow, it is in the exact same building it used to be in, on the Malecon. 

This flagpole display sits right out front, and while I am not sure, I took it as some kind of art installation that is supposed to mean "Cuba stands alone." 

Decaying buildings along the Malecon. This is ocean-front property in Havana.

The tour also included the "new" side of Havana, which we had not seen before. Two hours in the sun on the top of a bus taught us that isn't really worth going over there, because everything of historic and touristic value is in old Havana. Even the "nicer" areas in the suburbs of Havana are pretty much slums (not in the sense that they are dangerous, but they are in a serious state of decay).  

At least historic slums are much more interesting. Mid century slums just look like Van Nuys. 

These were the only nicer houses we saw, in the Miramar area. But all around them were crumbling buildings. I wondered how these people were able to maintain theirs so well.

We saw the Plaza de la Revolucion, where students gathered to get that ball rolling. It has two large office buildings, one with Che's handsome face and the other with, well, Fidel. Adam commented that "poor Fidel keeps hoping his face will catch on, just like Che's." Haha.

Plaza de la Revolucion

We drove past the hospital and the University of Havana, both which looked decent and comparatively up to date.

We had seen a ton of political propaganda signage all throughout our trip. As a PR person, and a politics enthusiast, it all fascinated me. This kind of signage is created to influence people, and stir emotions.  This one, though, really rubbed me the wrong way:

"Bloque" means blockade and it is what Cubans call the American embargo. This sign is saying that the American embargo against Cuba is "the longest genocide in history." Even though the UN has called our embargo illegal and urged us to abolish it for the past 25 years, I think the word "genocide" is a bit strong.

Most of the other signage looks more like this, which is still fascinating, because Cubans think they are free. They might be free from the old corrupt dictator Batista, but they are FAR from free.

Back in Old Havana, we drove back down the Malecon and saw a million more gorgeous cars from the bus top.

We got off the bus near the capital building and walked down a shopping street for locals, full of 1950s era department stores selling 1980s era clothing, furniture and home goods.  It was depressing, and I was hungry.  The closest hotel, Hotel Ingleterra, became our spot for lunch… but not for long. Like everything in that area, it was severely dated, but not at all in a good way.  It was very smoky inside, and the menu looked like government food, so we left.  We looked for another restaurant, but all we could find in that area was snack stands selling churros, pizza that looked nothing like pizza, and fried chicken. So we walked back to our area and ate at the Orient Café, which was the fanciest spot around. We didn't care. Fancy in Cuba means $20 for lunch, and at that point, we had just about enough of Cuban food.  I ordered chicken, rice, and vegetables and it was good. But best of all… they had iced tea on the menu! I almost cried!! The waitress brought me a cup of hot water, a tea bag & a glass of ice. I was about to yell, "Lady, that is not how this works!" But I decided to just do the manual labor myself, and brew/chill my own tea, knowing that tomorrow I would be able to have a venti black iced tea from Starbucks for $3 and no effort.

Next we were off on our mission from yesterday -- walking outside the cannons to take photos of the beautiful, haunting decay and to hand out money to cute kids.

A family walking home from lunch

 A fruit and vegetable market

 Some old dudes hanging out

My rule was, "if anyone asks, they get nothing. If they are sweet and don't ask, they get an American dollar." One dollar is a full day's pay for an adult in Cuba, so the kids we had given them to so far had been thrilled!

Right away I saw a young girl run out of a doorway crying, and run into the doorway next door. I found her sitting on the steps, sobbing.  I asked her if she needed a hug, and even though she didn't speak English, she jumped up and hugged me. The mom in me took over. I hugged her and told her not to cry, and stroked her hair. She looked up and gave me a small smile. I gave her a dollar and her smile grew significantly. I still don't know why she was crying, but I think about her sometimes, even more than a week later. 

Next, we passed two boys playing in the street. One said, "Señora, watch this trick!" and ran inside and did a handstand against the wall. I handed him a dollar. His friend came and said that he wanted a dollar too. I told him he had to do a trick, so he did a handstand too. They were so cute! And their home was total photography eye candy. Well worth $2.

Further down the road we saw a small boy lowering a bag attached to a rope off of a balcony.

His big brothers were working on a car below, and the kid was teasing them.  Adam told the boy to send down the bag, and he would send up a dollar. The boy said no and shook his head. His brothers yelled up to explain what we were saying and told him to lower the bag or come down. He yelled, "NO!" and stuck out his tongue at us. Lol! No dollar for you, kid!

We talked to a lot more people on our long walk, including one guy who we were pretty sure was a pimp.  The all loved to hear we were from America. They said Americans are very important to Cuba.  They asked us not to hold anything against the people, and said that they only blame our governments, not the American people, for what has happened.

Barber shop sign, with hairdo choices

We also saw a tree that had grown right through a building, and up the side. A man sitting on stoop across the street said that he had watched it grow from  a sapling -- for the past 50 years. I thought about the resilience of the tree, and the man, and almost started to cry.

This went on and on. We walked, talked to people, and handed out dollars in exchange for photos. This part of Havana really moved me. I could have walked around there for days on end. We saw houses that should have long ago been condemned, with no windows and the entire top floor missing. As we walked by, we could see people living inside.

A woman was living in this house!

A churro vendor walked through the streets yelling loudly, and kids came out of those crumbling buildings like ants. Moms yelled out their child's name from doorways, and kids came running. Boys played soccer in the streets on almost every block.

Time had truly stood still here. Not one building had been painted in 60 years. Not one modern car was in sight. Yet the people were not only nice, they were HAPPY. Except for the crying girl, everyone we spoke to had an air of lightness and joy about them. There was music and artwork everywhere — coming from the windows and painted on the walls.

People whistled as they walked. The kids were poor, but incredibly clean and well cared for.

Note how white this teen kept his outfit!

I saw a kitten in a pile of rubble and its mama with one green eye and one blue eye standing nearby, keeping watch. Even they seemed happy.

We saw tons of dogs, some of which followed us to share in our walk. 

We saw a rooster in someone's front window, jailed by bars.


It was all so bizarre, and I was in love with Havana.

We walked back to the casa and sat outside on the steps while Adam smoked a cigar and played with an adorable cat. All of the other casa guests eventually returned, and we chatted for about an hour in the living room about our day.

Alejandro had secured tickets to the Buena Vista Social Club for us, so we got dressed up and headed out for our last night in Havana.  We walked outside into a complete downpour. Alejandro had ordered us a bicycle cab, but it had big rubber side flaps and a roof, so it was dry inside. The driver, however, had to pedal our not-so-skinny selves for 10 minutes, in the pouring rain, on cobblestone streets. That poor kid.

Inside, we had chicken, rice & beans and "cheese with jam" for desert. Once again, it was as if they saw that item on a menu on the Internet, and tried to copy it, but never saw or tried tried the actual food. The cheese to jam ratio was all wrong and the jam tasted exactly like Campbell's tomato soup, mixed with applesauce. Oh, Cuba.

I think the Buena Vista Social Club must have been way better 60 years ago, before everyone was in their mid to late 80s. Because it was, well, not so great.

It was still worthwhile to go, because of the history of the place. But they filled a lot of the 2 hour-show with audience participation and an emcee (who Adam called the Cuban Seacrest) talking.  They asked where everyone was from, and played a bit of music from that country. There were people from Brazil, Peru, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Canada, France, Italy, and us — the only 2 Americans in the room. 

We walked out at 11pm to hail a cab in the rain, and found our bike taxi guy there, waiting for us. That's a perfect metaphor for Cuba. Every time it lets you down, it picks you right back up.

Tomorrow: Heading home and final thoughts on Cuba