Long and hard I have thought about Havana, what was it like, did I have a good time, would I go back and I really don’t have an answer. Some things I learned were very upsetting others quite uplifting, perhaps. Therefore, what follows have to be just observations with no comments or opinions.
First, the Internet and access to same. Pretty much taken for granted these days everywhere you go. The deserts of Uzbekistan, remote islands off the coast of Western Papua, I could even use WhatsApp on various parts of the Great Wall of China but in Havana it was a struggle. Within the boundaries of the more expensive hotels a card was available with a user name and password for ten US Dollars, or CUCs for one hour’s connectivity. Clearly this was unavailable to the local people as a Doctor only earned $50 per month. At various booths and shops it was possible to buy a card for two Dollars for one hour but then the challenge was to find a place that provided an Internet connection. The trick was to look out for hoards of young people (kids) sitting randomly in the street, all on their phones. It could be a park, a street corner or a Government office. The nearest access point to my Casa Particular (BnB) was five blocks away at a very average looking hotel and there were the kids, sitting all around the perimeter, on their phones. BUT, the hotel did not sell the one hour cards and when mine ran out of time I was sent another five bocks down the street to a ‘blue and white house’, but they had sold out for the day. Manana! At this point I gave up my attempt to send a text back home to tell the family that I had survived the Stones concert.
The point here is that this is the situation for the vast majority of the population and it is not helping anyone. (Was that an opinion?) Imagine trying to do homework, and no, the local library is not just around the corner, or not being able to look something up on Google. People do not have access to the Internet in their homes or places of work. Would you walk five blocks to send a text message or an email and then walk the five blocks home again? No, I thought not.
Then there is the car situation. When the US created the embargo, imports of cars from the US stopped and those lucky enough to have a car just begged, borrowed or stole the parts required to keep them running, for over fifty years. There is a vintage car taxi route on which you stick out your arm, jump in, pay perhaps a nickel (5p) and ride to your destination. It’s a bit like, no, it’s exactly the same as Dushanbe in Tajikistan except that there you don’t get to ride in a ’56 Chevy! Contrary to myth the majority of the vintage cars are owned by the Government that in turn rents the cars out to the drivers. I did ride in one, a 1956 Pontiac, it reminded me of a tank but great fun and it put some dollars in the hands of a local.
I met a man who was arrested, back in the day, for carrying a Rolling Stones record in public.
I heard stories of a prison set up just for gay people, apparently it was something of a party scene!
My BnB host, his wife and children had no concept of being able to leave the island to go on vacation. It was just not on their radar.
There was a tv in the house but I never saw it turned on, though the wife had one in her bedroom and would disappear to watch telenovellas (soaps). Satellite dishes are illegal.
The rum and wine stall across the street had a crowd of people waiting to be served all day long. Rum at $2.50 per bottle.
I was taken to what appeared to be a private lunch club. Entering through a somewhat run down apartment block lobby we were whisked to the top floor where the view was heart stopping. The furnishings were all 50s colonial and the food was incredible. I felt very privileged.
Potatoes are a rarity and have not been seen for some months. I saw a line at a store and asked what it was for, potatoes I was told. Ah, so there are potatoes available? No, but they might have some later. Someone was recently murdered in a potato line, potato rage?
I was leaving, at the airport at some unearthly hour. Checking in for my flight I was asked where I was going next, after my initial destination and did I have a ticket and if not you must go to the office to buy one. This I duly did and was presented with a $400 invoice that could only be paid for with CUCs, not plastic or US Dollars. OK, seems a bit steep but I will go to the ‘change money’ and return. BUT, they were all closed, the two at Arrivals and the two at Departures. The security guard at each bank was unable to tell me when they would open, so there I was, and the clock was ticking. I felt as if I was trapped in 1984, a real rock and a hard place. I bumped into my Portuguese friend and using his fluent Spanish tried again. Nope, no one knows when they will reopen. A man appeared, saw my anxiety, determined my problem, used his ATM card to withdraw the required CUCs, took my dollars, I got my ticket and was last on the plane. Phew.
Cuba then, very interesting and yes I will go again but will take stuff, band aids, Aspirin, syringes, coffee, etc, things to give away. And no, I did not buy a Che Guevara shirt!