Havana, land of music, sun and cigars. Everyone I know who has been is a little dismissive and advises to only stay for a couple of days. I stayed for a month and had a fabulous time.
The first thing that surprises about Cuba is that there is a double currency. One for nationals and one for foreigners. I do not know the reason for this but there you are. Salaries are extremely low and a doctor earns about £20 per month. That means that people do not have much of anything and struggle to survive. There are some beggars in the streets, most of whom seem to have disabilities so clearly the system does not make provisions for them. I was cornered by one who was quite forceful and aggressive asking for money. So sad.
When I first arrived I stayed in a smart hotel as one of my girlfriends came from England to spend 2 weeks with me. Once she left I stayed in a more modest “casa particular” which means private home. They come in all shapes and sizes and mine though 2 floors up a narrow and very steep staircase, was a truly lovely enormous apartment with high ceilings and small courtyards, all freshly done up. There is such a difference in the treatment between a hotel and a casa. The hotels do not care, are not interested in customer service and are basically unfriendly. They are government owned and the staff are just doing a job. In a casa particular you are staying in someone’s home and my experience was friendly, chatty and very helpful.
Life in Cuba is in the street, people sitting on their front door steps, children playing ball in small squares. There are a lot of door to door sales and the streets are often filled with voices shouting “butter, buckets, brushes, coconut…” as the seller walks along the street in the hope of a sale. It amused me no end that Cubans seem to dispense with doorbells. You want to speak someone in a building, you just shout their name until they come out. Shouts for “Mauricio!” “Marta!” “Leo!” “Soraya!” and “Fidel, get your Mum” filled the air day and night. And then there is the music. Music coming from several houses at once spilling into the streets. It is a loud society but remarkably, it all just becomes background noise and hardly noticeable after a while. I particularly love the Oasis and U2 salsa cover versions.
When walking about the streets in most places I have travelled, you are offered taxis or invited to enter a shop and look around. In Cuba this is taken to a whole new level and it is a real nuisance. Every few steps someone wants to talk to you, well, take your money under one guise or another. Do you want a taxi, a tour, buy some cigars, rent a room, have some lunch or as one woman who approached me in the street saying “I am not going to ask you for money but do you have any clothes or toiletries you could give me…”It is a pity that the Cubans you meet in the street are so persistent and annoying as they give a view of the country that it is not so. I have been lucky to meet other Cubans and they have been friendly, respectful and great fun.
There are very few shops in the streets as there are many which are private in people’s homes and unless you know they are there, impossible to find. Internet is a nightmare, it is only available in a handful of hotels which may or may not sell you a £5 wifi hour depending on their mood and your appearance. I have been turned away several times from hotels where I had been able to buy wifi before. Food and drink is generally quite cheap compared to Europe although I did meet a chap from New Zealand who had been charged £25 for a gin and tonic…
Havana is a very beautiful city, you walk around in Old Havana and suddenly come across a delightful square or street which has been fully restored and it takes your breath away. It totally surpassed my expectations.
I spent the month doing salsa lessons every day relearning what was long forgotten. The lessons were fun though sometimes a challenge. “You need to do this” my teacher would say and he would not believe I was trying, I explained that my brain was telling my body to copy him but the body was having difficulty obeying the command…I have improved a lot but I am a little bit sad to realise I will never be able to dance like a Cuban. It is not in my blood…