Saturday, December 20, 2008

Club Cuba

We had talked for months about the prospect of traveling to Cuba but we were faced with seemingly endless and unanswerable questions of flights, safety, currency, lodging and political situations. There is simply little to no reliable information on the internet or among North Americans about the massive island just off the coast of Florida.

With the exception of Mexico and the United States, many flights to Havana are offered from multitude of airlines in many Latin American countries including Canada. With current U.S trade restrictions with Cuba, U.S. citizens are not prohibited from traveling to Cuba as much as purchasing goods or services originating from the island nation. All tourists traveling to Cuba by air are required to buy a $20 tourist visa upon check-in to the flight bound for Cuba. At border control in the Havana international airport, passengers present their passport along with the tourist card for inspection. The border agent the stamps the right side of the tourist visa, presenting the duplicate right side for you to keep as your "passport" while in Cuba. The right side is presented to hotels and hostels that you stay at in Cuba as well as when you leave the country. After a brief passport, tourist visa and snap shot taken at the border you are welcome with heartfelt "bienvenidos!"

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Safely into Cuba it immediately becomes clear that there are two worlds: Cuba and Tourist Cuba. While this is true in most of the developing world, it is most pronounced in Cuba where the government has established two local currencies as well as rules and regulations regarding who can work with tourists when, where and why. Let me explain: If you exchange Euros or US Dollars in Cuba you will receive Pesos Convertibles at about $1 US per convertible. This is the tourist currency used at fancy restaurants, clubs, hotels, vending machines and a host of supermarkets and stores. 1 convertible can be exchange for 25 Cuban pesos at any currency exchange or at times on the street. Pesos are the Cuban's currency used to buy basic food stuffs, transportation and some entertainment. For example an ice cream purchased at a the "tourist" convertible window of the Coppelia ice cream parlor costs the equivalent of $3 US while the locals can wait in lines of 100 people to buy the flavor of the day for the equivalent of 5 cents.Here it is important to emphasize locals have to wait in LINES fpr the flavor of the DAY. Almost everywhere you look at bus stations, grocery stores or baseball games or banks dozens and dozens of Cubans seem to be waiting in endless lines often without knowing if the products or services for which they are waiting will be available once they reach the front of the lines. Back to tourism, though, the most dominant economic force on the island (yes more than cigars and rum!). The taxi driver that drove us from the airport when we arrived was educated as a marine engineer, designed and built ships in Germany and then when he moved back to Havana decided he could make more money driving a cab for foreigners than building OIL TANKERS. One night a taxi driver even explained to us how he works by day as a computer programmer earning $20 US a month and in one night driving taxis and pulling in tips from tourists he makes more than in an entire year as a programmer. Herein lies a fundamental frustration for Cubans, your neighbor can get rich working with foreigners while you still slave away at the same job that pays you in pesos and you earn less than a dollar a day.

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Take a tourist taxi in Cuba and you ride in a Volkswagen or a toyota, ride in a shared taxi with Cubans and you'll squeez into a 1950's classic car without floors and with 6-7 other passengers. Traveling around Havana and hitch hiking around the countryside was one of our most memorable experiences. Learning the taxi driver hand signs for "full", "driving far" or reading the color of the license plates for "private" "government" or "tourist" cars was fun and took a lot of trial and error. We stayed in comfortable and CHEAP "casas particulares" or private homes that are licensed by the government as guest homes. These families in our experience were extremely nice and eager to learn as much about us as we were to learn about them! One evening our host mother (whose husband was depicted shaking hands with Fidel Castro in a framed picture in her living room) even cooked us a scrumptious Cuban dinner. Besides all the logistical details previously mentioned including the implied advice about trying to balance exposure to tourist and "real" Cuban locals Cuba is really most fantastic for it's music, dance and alcohol and cigars (probably in that order). Every day and night on the street, in restaurants in clubs you can enjoy FANTASTIC live music and dance. A all Cubans seem to professional dancers for some reason. A bottle of Havana Club Rum costs $2.90. Yes sir.