I brought back a lot more from Cuba than I bargained for. We won’t mention the extra kilos from the sugar in the mojitos and the full-fat coke in the Cuba Libres. We won’t mention the mozzie bites and the unsettling notion of the Zika virus. And we certainly won’t mention what has become a 72-hour stomach bug that grounded me on my last day in Havana, made the 24-hour-trip home less than pleasant, and has kept me housebound all day. They’re all incidental.
Cuba is a lot of things – dirty, decrepit, in a state of disrepair and yet amazingly beautiful. But one thing it ain’t is cheap. It might have been in days of yore but now that it’s opening up to outside influences, everyone is on the make. We must have flushed the bones of €50 down the toilet. It took me a while to figure out that just because there was a 1 CUC coin (€1/$1) in the plate didn’t mean I had to add another. But smaller coins were greeted with a look of disdain that took more than a little getting used to and gave rise to many internal debates about supporting a local economy (which I’m all for) and being taken for a ride (which I resent).
Locals appearing at our side offering what appeared to be helpful information about whatever it was we were looking at balked at a measly 1 CUC, expecting about 5 for their two minutes of unsolicited intervention. This, despite the fact that it was usually in Spanish and my Spanish is not nearly as good as my Hungarian. Expectations are high and are obviously being fed by the other classes of tourist – the wealthy ones, who stay at the posh hotels – and the group travellers who frequent the all-inclusive resorts. Those, like us, who booked our own accommodation (home-stays) and transport (private cars), eschewing anything by way of organised tours, we got to deal with those expectations. [Taking refuge close to a decent loo in the lobby of a posh hotel in Havana on Parque Central when the bug first hit, I overheard a conversation between a local tour rep and a British guy who had paid £5000 for his room – the best room in the hotel – only to find he’d been tucked in room at the back that had sh*t on the bedsheets. We’d booked a homestay down on the Malecón promenade, with a room overlooking the water for €30 a night. Granted we had to navigate four flights of narrow, less-than-clean stairs to get to it, but it was worth it.]
I’d been told that queues are the tell. A line of people (foreigners and locals) heralds one of three things: a working ATM, an exchange bureau, or a place selling internet cards. I take the first two for granted but to find a city the size of Trinidad with just one bank (two ATMs one of which was out of order) and one exchange bureau, that threw me. Thankfully, we’d brought euro as the mighty dollar attracts an additional 10% fee on exchange. Many of the traders would give 1 for 1, euro to CUC, and some exchange places gave more. Havana though – that’s the trap. The best we did there was 0.95. Internet cards for 1 or 5 hours can be bought and used anywhere you see a large crowd sitting around on their phones. The lines from Matthew (18:20) came to mind: For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. And not for the first time I wondered if the Internet has become a new god. The Cubans love their phones.
I’d been told to bring soap, as a gift, that it was hard to come by. But it wasn’t until Trinidad that I had the first inkling of locals signaling that they wanted me to give them my clothes – the ones I was wearing. It was bloody hot so I’d little by way of spares to give, but it was a tad disconcerting. It was outside Trinidad in the Valle de los Ingenios that people started asking for soap but the dozen bars I’d brought with me were back in the cassita. I compensated by buying stuff I didn’t want or need for way more than the asking price. It’s hard not to. Remember the food shortages in the 1990s that led to the average Cuban losing up to a third of their body weight? It still shows in the older population.
For the most part, prices vary as they do everywhere. Expect to pay between €1.60 and €2.00 for cigarettes; €1.60 and €2.50 for local beer (Bucanero was my favourite); €2.50 to €5.50 for cocktails; and €5 to €15 for a plate of chicken/pork with the accompanying rice and black beans. Taxis are another story – the best value are the private individuals who pull up and ask you where you want to go. They won’t have a taxi sign or might not even know where they’re going; they’re simply in it to eat. All you have to do is to stand around and look confused (which isn’t hard). The regular taxi drivers seem to charge what they like – I never once saw a meter and again, the conversation between supporting the local economy and being ripped off was had more than once.
I’d been told that two days was plenty for Havana. We had four nights, and three full days and didn’t even come close to cracking the surface. You need a least a week to do it justice. There is so much more to the place than the Viejo.
So despite the extra kilo, the mozzie bites, and the stomach bug, I’m grateful I went and went now rather than later. Massive changes are on the horizon. The cruise ships are docking. Expectations are high. And the crafty few are out to make their money. There’s a danger that Havana will turn into a tourist theme park and that the beach resorts will become compounds within which tourists are fed a diet of ‘authentic’ experiences that would put Disney to shame. If it’s on your list, make it soon.