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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A traveler's adventure in Cuba

This is a story about an Asian-Canadian traveler's adventures in Cuba. Going by the name of EC, here is his narrative, in my words...

At 6AM, in the light of the early morning, EC got into the cab. The airport was about half an hour's drive away without traffic. The ride along the mountainside was pretty much uneventful, with the occasional set of cones set up in the middle of the lane. This forced drivers to slow down in order to drive around it, and presumably, enough time for the police to peer inside the cars as they made the turns. It was certainly more effective than traffic lights.

EC got out of the cab, paid the driver, and headed for the airport entrance. There, armed guards with batons and guns stood, checking every entrant's passport. 

Once past the guards, EC quickly checked in, and sought to quickly buy his $15 tourist visa for Cuba. His efforts were hampered by whatever was going on with the passenger in front of him. The sole staff behind the counter was also apparently the cashier, as staff from the check-in counters kept dropping by to break Benjamins. Twenty minutes later, it was at last his turn. The woman behind the counter didn't look like she wanted to be there either. Who wouldn't prefer to be in bed at 7 in the morning? 

With the tourist card in hand, EC made his way to immigration, where, like my trip out of Costa Rica, he did not receive an exit stamp either. As usual, after immigration came security, which had no lines and consisted of the old fashioned x-ray machines that some major sporting events use. 
With time to spare, he headed directly to get some breakfast (French baguette with refried beans and scrambled eggs). A voice came over the terminal intercom telling passengers who did not have a tourist visa to purchase one at the gate. That would had been good to know earlier as there was no wait at the gate. 

When it came time to board, passengers were welcomed in reverse order. Those sitting in the back of the plane went in first. It was an Airbus plane as evident in the loud barking noise coming from one side of the plane as the power transfer unit brought up the hydraulic pressure on the other side of the plane. The air was calm, every blade of grass was standing still. Take off. 

The plane climbed to its cruising altitude at 34K feet, and stayed there for ~1.5 hours while the crew served lunch - a cheese sandwich, couple pieces of fruit, and a sweet pastry. 

As the plane prepared for its approach to landing, one of the crew members came through to spray some sort of antibacterial disinfectant along the aisle. This was apparently a requirement by the Cuban Health department. What good it did wasn't really clear. As the plane continued its descent, the deep blue Caribbean Sea came into view. 

Once deboarded, EC was questioned by an immigration officer while standing in line. Once satisfied the officer went off to the next suspicious looking foreigner. EC was glad he didn't get asked about health insurance since everyone entering Cuba "must" have health insurance. 

Once past immigration, EC headed to the currency exchange line. Though he had American dollars, he had made sure to bring enough Canadian dollars with him since there's an additional 10% tacked into exchanges involving US dollars. The line was long, and with 30 pounds of materials on his back, EC's patience slowly evaporated. 

In 1994, Cuba started using CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos) alongside the Cuban Pesos (CUP), 24 of which is equivalent to 1 CUC. CUCs are primarily used for luxury goods (e.g., TV) and CUPs for food and other basics. 

With CUCs in hand, EC quickly hopped into a cab. The airport was about 30 minutes from Habana Centro, where his casa particulare was located. In Cuba, visitors have the option of staying in state run hotels or in private casas that have been licensed to rent out rooms. As we drove through the narrow streets of Habana Centro, it was like traveling back in time, with classic Fords, Dodges, and Chevrolets roaming the streets. When the taxi driver dropped EC in front of the casa where he would be staying, he noted that the building had three sets of locks. The first one opened into the building and automatically locked when closed (but was opened upon EC's arrival). The second one opened up to each floor of apartments. Finally, the third one opened up to the apartment itself. With this knowledge apparent, EC soon realized that he had been dropped off at building 50 not 1050. 

Unfortunately, he was now locked in. Going up floor by floor, EC hollered "Hola!" until someone on the third floor heard him. He looked like he was in his early twenties, and showed no irritation at all for having his early afternoon interrupted. 

Out the front door, EC managed to find the 1050 building, in front of which were a couple men sitting and standing just chatting away. EC told them he was staying with Tati. On that note, one of the men walked into the middle of the street and screamed Tati's name, directing it at the top floor. A minute later, a set of four keys fell from the sky and landed in his hands. The gentleman unlocked the front door and handed the keys to EC. At the top of the stairs stood Tati, with a big smile and a big "Hola!" Tati unlocked the door leading to the floor, and immediately embraced EC with a hug and cheek kisses. Not expecting this, EC had blotched up his end of the greeting. But, he quickly redeemed himself when Izza, Tati's aunt, appeared at the door and repeated the same gesture, which EC returned in kind. 

The casa door opened up into a living room furnished by a green sofa set, walls adorned with paintings, an Asian chest of drawers, and a dining table. Beyond the living room was the balcony that overlooked calle Neptuno. Tati offered EC a Cuba Libre, but given his precarious circumstances in Cuba, he opted for a glass of fresh orange juice. After traveling for half the morning, he happily obliged when Tati told him to sit on the balcony and relax. From the casa, the Universidad de La Habana, the oldest in Cuba, stood to the left, Habana Vieja to the right, and the Malecón, the sea, straight ahead. 

Re-energized, EC headed out towards the university, passing by a church, cafeteria, and many more two-story buildings. The base of the university consisted of rows of steps that would make Rocky envious. At the top was a statue of Alma Mater and behind her was the building for mathematics and computer science. It was there where EC met two of the university students. They took him through a whirlwind tour of the campus, including the dorms, bar, and other highlights, with tidbits of history and culture spread throughout. For example, all cars and houses are passed on down through inheritances since they are beyond what the average Cuban can afford. 

By the time dinner came around, EC needed respite from the stinging rays of the Caribbean sun. The air was dry and the sky was clear, making it feel like a furnace every time he stepped out into the sun. Stepping inside an air conditioned cafeteria adjacent to one of the hotels, EC grabbed a quick bite of grilled chicken. At about 12 CUCs, it was one of the pricier cafeterias. Across the street from the cafeteria was a movie theater and diagonally across was Coppelia, a block size ice cream parlor. 

From there, the Malecón was only a 10 minute walk away and so that was where EC next headed. Along the edge was a seawall about ~3 feet high, upon which sat hundreds of people. It was a wonderful place to relax after a long day. To the right in the distance near Havana Vieja was a lighthouse and across the street was the Hotel Nacional, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was designed by a NY architectural firm prior to the US embargo. After fending off two male prostitutes, EC continued walking along the esplanade until it was time to go back before the mosquitoes had a feast. 

Upon unlocking the doors leading to the apartment floor, EC was instantly greeted by Tati, who took him to the apartment across the hall to meet her sister, Mayra, and her mother. Let the cheek kissing begin. After chatting with the family using the little Spanish he knew, EC walked back across the hall and to the balcony with Kindle in hand. It had been a long day and the heat was still unrelenting. 

The next morning, EC woke up to the sound of plates and silverware being laid down. Outside his bedroom, on the dining table, was a plate of fresh mango, papaya, watermelon, banana, and guava. On another plate was a fried egg with cheese, ham, and salami lining the perimeter of the plate. All were accompanied by a cup of very strong Cuban coffee and a fresh glass of OJ. With the benefit of its optimal geographic location, Cuba produces a plethora of its own fruits that are eaten or drunk as juices like candy. Eating the mango was indeed like eating pure sugar. 

His stomach stuffed to the brim, EC hopped into a cab for the Viazul bus terminal. For 5 CUCs, EC made it with plenty of time to spare - unfortunately they weren't selling the tickets for Viñales until half an hour prior to departure. With that, cue the final jeopardy music. 

When the Viazul-bound bus pulled in, EC handed over 12 CUCs to secure his spot on the bus. Inside, the Viazul seats actually reclined (unlike those on the Tica bus) and there was plenty of leg room. With Spanish music ringing through, the bus left at 9AM sharp...


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