I’ve traveled enough to know that certain countries are simply more difficult to travel to than others. I remember walking the streets of India with Janet years ago and literally turning around to tell a beggar boy that if he didn’t stop following us and harassing us that we would never come to visit his country again. Admitting that makes me think of myself as so evil, but when you’re in that heat and you’re dirty and down-trotten and the same little boy has been following you for blocks trying to sell you something you already told him you have no interest in from the get-go, your patience tends to waiver. I loved India… but I’m also not ready to return there with my family… these boys of ours are enough of a test to our patience.
Cuba is a hard place to travel to as well, but for different reasons.
For us, it started when we took a closer look at our plane ticket. We flew out of Miami (offering flights to Cuba from the US is a relativity new thing given the history of the ban on US travel to Cuba). Rather than an airline, we took a charter and having got into Miami the day before, I wanted to call and talk to someone to confirm our flight time and the charter we were taking. My friend Carolyn picked us up from the airport and as Willy waited for our luggage, I confessed that I was just a bit nervous that our tickets were totally bunk and that our agent (whom I refer to as our ‘Cuban hook-up’ as we’ve used her twice now to get to Cuba… both before the lift of the restrictions and, now, after) could possibly have taken our money and ran.
As a side note, the first time we went to Cuba involved lengthy instructions that included things like, “you’ll see a man in a red shirt at the airport in Mexico… give him your envelope of cash and he will return with your tickets” as well as “keep your humanitarian licenses until you get to Cuba, then you need to rip them up”… needless to say, it was sketchier than what was our current situation but nevertheless the last thing I wanted was to be stuck in Florida for two weeks instead with my whole family looking at me like a moron for wiring our money to a woman I refer to as my ‘Cuban hook-up’.
I never was able to confirm the legitimacy of our tickets, nor the departure time, so when we left for the airport I crossed my fingers and complied with the ticketed instructions that suggested we get to the airport 4 hours before our flight, in the wee hours of the morning, before the airport actually opened.
I should back-up and mention that none of the flight times worked in our traveling-with-kids favor. We had to get the kids up at 3am to make our first flight to Miami and then, when taking the time change into consideration, we had to get up the following morning – errr night – at 1am to get to the airport four freaking hours ahead of time.
As soon as we got to the Miami airport and worked our way past the seldom individual sleeping on the non-sleep-friendly airport benches and to the area of the charter planes, it became evident that four hours was exactly what we needed in order to make our flight. It was so disorganized and the communication was lacking in such a way that made me look over at Willy and ask, “are you sure we’re not in Cuba already?”. It’s a different experience than traveling to countries in, say, Europe, where there are several other tourists. When you go somewhere like Cuba, you stick out like a sore thumb because nearly everyone else in line is either from there or visiting family that lives there. Which is fine, and actually a preference of mine when picking places to visit. It just makes the experience a little more intimidating and a little harder to navigate as it’s not necessarily set up so conveniently for tourists.
In any event, we waited in long lines and paid over a hundred in taxes (in cash because not even the airport in Miami will take credit cards when dealing with their Cuba customers) that we didn’t even understand. I think we were also the only ones that opted not to have our luggage wrapped in that weird blue cellophane that we presumed serves no other purpose than to protect your luggage until someone behind the counter clued us in that people do that instead to protect what’s inside their luggage because apparently once you get to Cuba, the airport employees there will go through your luggage and take what they need. Hard to blame them when what they need cannot necessarily be bought or found, for that matter. We opted for zip ties instead and worried the entire time that our shit was gonna be stolen.
There’s a herding factor that seems to occur when traveling international and Cuba is no exception. Personal space goes out the window and as soon as that plane touches down, people are practically climbing over you to make their way to aisle only to pile into a bus you’re all going to be on, packed like sardines. I can’t explain it except to say that Americans follow a very orderly life whereas there’s a certain free-for-all-without-purpose in many other countries.
When we arrived in Havana, we had to quickly put our guards up. Obvious tourists basically scream dollar signs and given the fact the other obvious tourists are traveling mostly in guided tours, you’re kinda the lone ranger… the sitting duck… and everyone – and their mom – wants to give you a ride. I’ve learned to get out of the crowd and separate myself from the hysteria and find the lonesome taxi guy patiently waiting in the background to give us a lift instead because more times than not, the ones that are all up in your face are also the ones that are going to try to talk you into staying at this fabulous place their friend or brother or cousin owns and it’s all some sort of scam in some way.
We gave the driver the address to the casa particular we had arranged to stay at (a casa particular is basically a room within a local’s home that they have been given permission by the government to rent out to tourists). We had rented two rooms, as there aren’t any rooms that we could find to accommodate a family of four. Upon our arrival, however, the women we’d come to call ‘crazy Olga’ shuffled us all into one room and communicated (with her broken english and our broken-ish spanish) that the other room wouldn’t be available for another day or so. We glanced into the room that was available and looked at each other a little weary when we noticed two twin beds pushed together to resemble a large king bed.
We ended up sticking with the room for the duration of our trip because it worked out… but that’s not to say accommodations in Cuba are top-notch or first-world-friendly. For twenty five dollars a night we got: a private room with a private bathroom (many have a shared bathroom with other guests or with the family you’re staying with), two twin beds with horribly bad bedding (the kind of sheets that are so thin they never stay wrapped around the edge of the mattress and pillows that are literally stuffed with cotton balls — not to mention that there are no extra pillows available… that means the boys had to sleep on the presumably dirty decorative square pillows and my pregnant ass had to make due with none of the creature comforts I was used to at home), and hot water but only at certain times throughout the day, which really translates to mean mostly cold showers with a few delightful surprises here and there. Someone also comes in, each day, to tidy up your room which sounds wonderful in theory until you notice $100 missing from a pocket deep in your bag and have to accuse someone who probably needs that $100 way more than you do – someone you probably would have tipped very nicely at the end anyhow – of taking your money. Kinda leaves a sour taste in your mouth and the feeling of ‘coming home’ / aka back to your room a little less inviting. Without going into much detail, I’ll say that there was a lot of finger pointing and a lot of “that never happens here” said and a lot of yelling amongst themselves but ultimately, the money was returned. The sour taste never went away though.
Five years ago, when we first visited Cuba, we couldn’t get over how bad the food was. We felt bad for passing judgement given the fact that much of what they have to cook with is rationed and, well, that makes for a lot of baked chicken with little more than salt and pepper on it. And a lot of fried chicken. This time, the food improved. Since Raul Castro has been in power, they’ve had a culinary revolution and restaurants are provided more ingredients to work with. And you can tell, for the most part… though I still wouldn’t suggest traveling to Cuba for the food. Accompanying the more vast menus, however, is a much steeper price tag. Considering that a room for the night cost all of $25, it didn’t seem to make sense that some dinners, which like I said were good but not great, ran us upwards of $70. I justified our trip to Cuba by making the argument that “it’s not that expensive” but really, it wasn’t that cheap either.
The old cars are fun to ride in and a joy to photograph but after a few days walking the city streets the idea of smoking three cigarettes at the same time actually sounds like a breath of fresh air to the ol’ fume engulfed lungs. I can’t tell you how many times we rode in a bicycle taxi only to get behind a bus or 1950’s Cadillac and be spit on by exhaust.
Speaking of old cars, car seats are not a thing in Cuba. All seven of us would pile into a cab, no problem. It sure is easier and more convenient and certainly freeing in a lot of ways. I’ve always believed that we’re a bit overly anxious and protective in the States, but lingering in the back of my mama brain was always the tormenting thought of “what if”… a fear that was so grand I couldn’t even bring myself to verbalize it for further fear of the whole jinxing mentality that thrived in the third grade. Trusting drivers we did not know, roads that were a bit precarious, cars that were a bit tattered, and two crazy boys – that I love with every bone and cell in my body – who flat out refused to sit still.
Cuba is obviously well known for their cigars and when we were there 5 years ago we learned quickly that to get a legit cigar, you have to buy directly from the factory. The honest Cubans will support this truth as well. The price is a bit steeper than buying off the street, but buying off the street is not synonymous with buying a true Cuban cigar. While the cigars in the factory are top quality and rolled with true tobacco leaves, many sold on the streets or out of people’s homes are rolled with crappy banana leaves. Willy’s hot to trot when it comes to cigars so we made the walk to the factory several times and each time we were stopped more than once and informed that “the factory is closed” and encouraged to buy in the alley behind the factory instead. By the second time we were told this lie, I just wanted to respond with “uh-huh, and pigs are flying, LOOK!”. To make matters more annoying, smoking cigars on the street would lead to being approached by at least five different individuals who want to know where you got it and how much you paid for it and then try to persuade you to buy from them, or their cousin, instead. It made the whole smoking cigar experience less than enjoyable.
We also got hit with the oldest trick in the book, a scam that’s prevalent just about anywhere I’ve traveled, which is when you agree on a price for a cab only to arrive at your destination and be told that the price is actually per person, not total. This happened with a bicycle taxi on one of our last days in Cuba; day after day of paying the same price and more-or-less knowing how much fares to and from our place should be. Point being, we weren’t fresh off the boat and when the taxi driver started getting hostile, we paid him half of what he was asking for (which was double what we had paid for any other fare), rolled our eyes, and kinda looked forward to returning home.
We opted to keep The Bee & The Fox open while we were in Cuba. I changed the allotted shipping times to reflect the time we’d be gone and intended to answer emails via etsy while there. To our surprise, however, our shop was shut down and the inability to communicate with heated customers proved stressful. Ultimately, we learned that because Cuba is a sanctioned country, we were unable to conduct business from there. Meaning, simply logging in to etsy from a sanctioned country is prohibited. Certainly we were not shipping any items from there… just managing the shop and keeping up on emails n’ such. And in the whole scheme of threats against the US (other sanctioned countries include Iran, Syria, North Korea), Cuba seems rather outdated and miniscule. In any event, we managed to work things out with etsy despite the shotty internet access, but it was certainly time spent and stress endured that we did not intend on.
All in all, when considering the good and the bad and the fact we’ve been to Cuba twice now, I don’t think we’ll be returning anytime soon. I’m grateful that we got to see it when we did and to compare that first time with this second time and to note the many changes already taking place. It’ll always live in my heart as one of the most unique places I’ve ever traveled and I hope this is just the beginning in terms of international travel for our family.
*You can read my previous post on Cuba, ‘Cuba: The Good’, but clicking here.