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Welcome to Havana

I had this exit row seat with infinite legroom, but no window, so I didn't get my first view of Cuba until I got off the plane. My first impression was "standard Caribbean." The airport area was hot, green, and flat in a way that reminded me of the St. Kitts airport, but this was much bigger. (I was briefly reminded that I miss St. Kitts, though.) The airport looks old (and probably is), but it functioned. I quickly made it through immigration and customs (no checked bag) and found myself in the arrivals hall, surrounded by the usual people holding signs for their pickups. I saw no signs of an ATM or money changer, which was unusual, so I asked information. I went outside to a guarded booth with a long line and waited. The guard was only letting 2 people up to the desk at a time and I felt pretty comfortable and safe there. Behind the desk, two Cubans sat and chatted per booth. I'm not sure what the role of the second was- maybe checking the first or keeping her company- but they chatted the whole time. The lady working the counter didn't say a word to me. I just slid my Euros across the counter to the changer and received my CUC. It's not like there was really another transaction option. The nice part was that they don't charge a change fee like the money changers at most airports. Also, the difference in the "buy" and "sell" rates was relatively small, and there was no fee for changing. I appreciate that they give a fair deal, even though they're the government monopoly. I tried to split a taxi with a couple of Americans I had chatted with in line, but they were heading elsewhere. Instead, I was able to share with a Swiss guy who regularly visits Cuba. I didn't save a lot by splitting the taxi, but it was something. The taxi pulled right up to my casa particulare. This is the Cuban equivalent of a B&B. It's somebody's home, but they have extra rooms, so they rent them out. Casa Villa Azul, mine, was located in a residential neighborhood in old Havana, right by the Malecon- a perfect location. The outside looks just as old as the rest of the area, but the inside is well-maintained and comfortable. I use the word "old" and not "run down" because that's really what it is. It's not that people have abused their homes or that nature has triumphed, it's just that the homes haven't received the cosmetic TLC that they would have elsewhere. Nothing is covered in graffiti or looks vandalized, it's just a bit crumbly. It's still functional- I didn't see boarded up windows, for example- they just don't put painting it pretty as a priority (for good reason). I climbed the stairs to the casa- this one is all second floor, no elevator, sorry- and was greeted by Nancy and her son Jesus. They were very nice and accommodating. We spoke Spanish, although Nancy knows some English. When I can separate my Hebrew out, my Spanish is decent. I just kept having to correct myself so that my sentences weren't half Spanish, half Hebrew. Check in was official- passport forms, and signatures. I'm sure they have to keep good books in order to keep their government permit. She explained the place to me- breakfast is 5 CUC, hot water takes a minute (like most homes), here is the AC remote, which key is what. It was all very standard. The room itself was very classic Spanish colonial. It reminded me of a room we had in Lima. The ceilings were very tall- double "normal" height. The windows were tall, opening into the "courtyard" of the house. The room and bathroom were well-maintained- very clean, fresh paint, nothing broken, solid furniture, toilet seat on the toilet. This is much nicer than the Cuba I read about in the guidebooks. I got settled, and Nancy gave me some suggestions. Then, I headed out. I walked along the Malecon (the "boardwalk" equivalent). This was a popular spot for sitting, probably due to the great view and the sea breeze. Several Cuban kids asked me for money as I passed. Some guys whistled or made comments that would be considered rude in the states, but my understanding is that they are closer in intent to the "compliments" guys give in St. Kitts. I passed a lot of tourists. What I didn't pass was a ton of restaurants. With the amazing view of the sea, any other country would have a ton of restaurants lining the Malecon. But not here. It seemed mostly residential. I did find one restaurant, Abadia. It had 3 long tables, and people just came in, self-seated, and sat with whoever. I ended up near a friendly American who said that she had eaten here thrice already, so I felt comfortable that it was safe. The service is Caribbean slow combined with European hands-off. You have to flag the one waiter down to ask for a menu, and then it takes a while to arrive. You have to flag him down to order. Like many Caribbean places, you have to ask what they do have today, because they don't have most of their menu. You wait for the food, and again have to flag the waiter down for the bill at the end. For somebody unused to the way European waiters never initiate a table visit or somebody unused to the Caribbean speed, it could have been frustrating. I ended up with a veggies and rice dish that wasn't even on the menu (but was good), and a Cuban orange soda that tasted just like Fanta. Originally, I had been offered Sprite and Coke, but I asked for Cuban, and this is what they had. I walked back to my casa in the dark, but the streets were lit and there were a ton of people hanging out, so it felt very safe. Many of the people still out were teens who were sitting in parks, staring at their phones. My understanding is that the parks have wifi. While it's slow, expensive, and regulated, since people don't have internet at home, this is where they all come to use the web. I'm not sure what they have the bandwidth to do, but the teens in the park here are just as glued to their phones as teens around the world.



View from Casa

View from Casa

Posted by spsadventures 16:00 Archived in Cuba

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