A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Soseki

In Conclusion

I'd heard people clap when the plane touched down before. I'd never heard such excitement as when the flight from Havana touched down at Miami.

After we boarded and were all seated, there was an announcement in Spanish. It was not repeated in English. Hands shot up all around the airplane. Had it been asking who wanted a free drink or seat upgrade? Everyone in our group looked at each other, but no one had any idea what was going on.

Finally, a Cuban sitting nearby explained that the announcement had been asking everyone who was staying in the United States to raise their hands, because they wanted to know how many there were.

Remember the visas that the United States had recently started granting more of? Some of them were on our flight.

We were only able to go to Cuba because the United States had eased up on the restrictions for Cuban travel, but it went the other way too. Cubans who wanted to go to the United States ran into at least as many issues from the United States government as from Cuba.

Our tour guide had an uncle who had gone to the United States during the revolution. Five times her grandmother had arranged a meeting with the United States to see if she could go visit him. Five times she'd managed to gather $100 to set up that meeting. Five times the United States had responded “no, you can't go see your son.” She had died without seeing him again.

Several people I met on this trip (especially other non-American tourists) mentioned their approval of the kind of cultural exchange we were on, or how great travel is for learning. I've certainly learned a lot more from this trip than I could have in any other way, and developed a much greater appreciation for Cuba than I could have otherwise. That first step in easing the embargo is so important. Let more Americans tour and learn about Cuba, and let more Cubans come to the United States, whether they want to visit or live there.

The plane exploded into clapping and cheers when we touched down in the United States. Trent gave a thumbs up to a person sitting nearby him and said “congratulations.” The Cuban, now a Cuban-American, gave a thumbs up back. He was crying and hugging his family.

However glad I and the students I was with might be to return to nice showers and beds and families and friends and food, our excitement couldn't compare with the excitement of the new immigrants. They had been waiting so much longer.

Posted by Soseki 08:37 Comments (0)

Music in Cuba

If you have a “friend” who just came back from Cuba and won't shut up about how warm and pretty it was, there's a simple way to annoy them as much as they're annoying you. Just say “Guantanamera.”

Think of Christmas carols. Now imagine they were all combined into a single really catchy but really annoying tune. Now imagine that was played year-round, and you have some idea of what “Guantanamera” is like.

If you know Spanish, you might be able to tell that there are a number of variations of stanzas. If you don't know Spanish, you'll only be able to catch a single word.

While we were waiting in line for customs, Wyatt mentioned that he couldn't wait to be past it so he could use his phone to buy a song.
Ian: Guantanmera?
Wyatt: No, absolutely not.
A little later I realized that I was mentally singing it.
Me: Ian? When we're through customs, can I please punch you for getting that stuck in my head?
Ian started bobbing his head.
Ian: Dammit.
Me: Nevermind. It getting stuck in your head is more than enough punishment.

In light of that, it's not surprising that when we asked the Cuban students what music they liked to listen to, they all responded “yours. American.”

With the exception of “Guantamera,” most of the songs I've heard have been pretty enough, though lack of Spanish prevents me from enjoying the original music that much. There were enough covers of English and American songs to keep me recognizing things, though. Someone commented that since Cuban and American legal authorities weren't exactly friendly, they probably didn't need to pay royalties on the songs, which would explain a lot.

Most of the full-fledged restaurants we ate at had a band playing there. This could be frustrating if our table was right in front of the band and I couldn't hear or be heard by anyone I was eating with, but if I was sitting sufficiently far away, it was nice. During a pause between songs they'd pass around a basket asking for tips and/or seeing if anyone wanted to buy a CD.

There are two main kinds of musical groups I heard. Most of the ones in restaurants had a singer, in addition to instruments to back them up. They would be the ones selling CDs and playing a mix of Cuban, American, and British music.

The restaurant we ate in at the last night had no singer, and didn't sell CDs. They joined a lot of different groups on the street in this regard. For the most part, it was an eclectic collection of instruments playing acoustic versions of songs I recognized. Several guitars playing “Hotel California.” (This happened in Havana while Trent and Adam were buying books and Wyatt and I were standing nearby. They came up, talked with us for a bit, and then started playing. I'd had no idea the song was so long.) A violin and a guitar playing classical music on the street. (It was the first time I'd heard that kind of combination, and I found it really interesting.) A cello, piano, and some guitars playing “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and “Someone Like You.” (This was the restaurant the last night. Street musicians tend not to play the piano.)

Personally, I preferred the second kind, both because it was easier to talk over, and because it was more recognizably unique. I loved the combination of instruments I'm not used to hearing together with a song that usually sounds so different. In many cases, I liked the versions I heard in Cuba more than the original.

Except “Hotel California.” That song is way too long without lyrics.

Posted by Soseki 08:02 Comments (0)

Airports Again

We got off the bus, grabbed our suitcases, and entered the Havana with absolutely no issues. Problems only started setting in when we tried to check in for our flight.

Ben's father got through, and then when Kendall was going, there was a problem. She pointed back at our professors, and one of them came forward to talk with the official behind the counter. Then they both went off while the rest of us worriedly watched.

Allie went through, and it was my turn. I went forward, hoping that I wouldn't have any problems. There wasn't, but I soon learned that if I'd wanted to be in the majority, I would have hoped that there had been an issue. More people couldn't check in than could.

After a little hanging around with the people who hadn't gotten through, one of the professors told us that we could pay the 25 CUC. We did, and got our boarding passes stickered. Then we hung around for a bit before being told we could go through the next point, which was the reverse version of the horse stalls we'd been put through to enter the country. We got to give our exit visas to the proper authority, which was one less thing to worry about losing. Just the boarding pass and passport, and the letters saying we were allowed to visit Cuba for legitimate educational reasons.

I went to stand in a line behind other people, but then one of the airport guards pointed me to a new line where I went up right away. This time went smoother. I took off my glasses, stared at what I was supposed to, listened with less trepidation (I've already gotten stamps that said I arrived, so it was better to have stamps saying I left than the alternative) and went through the door when it buzzed.

When I came out, I saw a line for security that had no one I recognized in it.

Is there a non-suspicious way to hang out right outside a security check? I'm not sure, but I was trying to achieve it. I kept making slight steps towards the security check without explicitly commiting myself to the line, because I didn't want to go through another checkpoint without knowing someone else was there. Then Ben's father showed up, so we both went to stand in the line. Ian, Allie, and Ben showed up while we were waiting, and after we got through security (it was much less thorough than at O'Hare or Miami. Just a basic metal detector that didn't even make you take off your shoes) we found chairs to sit down in, and wait.

“What happens if it becomes time to board and no one else has come through?”
“We have two hours. Let's hope that doesn't happen.”

Jake came by just a little after us, but he quickly became distracted by showing his art to someone. Specifically, an airport official who wanted to make sure that it was art, and that it had been paid for. When he couldn't produce the receipts (that the artist had never given him) he needed to pay an extra 3 CUC per painting. (Everyone who came through with paintings on their carry-on needed to.) He didn't have CUC, and the currency exchange was on lunch.

Eventually, people from our group who weren't distracted by paying even more money for art came through. When I asked, they said that they'd been put on the flight list by their mother's maiden name. I showed them where we were sitting, then talked with the other people who had made it through without issue. Ian and I both had our mother's maiden name as our last names, and Allie's mother's maiden name was her middle name. Ben and his father had presumably gotten through because someone could tell they were related, therefore their last name wasn't their mother's maiden name. I don't know.

But more people were getting through, and Jake had the money to pay for his paintings, so I wandered off to spend the 3 CUC I had left. I bought a Cuban soda (my last chance!) and a package of cookies with strawberry yogurt flavor. I ate a few, offered them to the people I was with, then offered them to each additional person who came through with a “congratulations. Have a cookie.”

That, and a couple of almonds, were the only food I had until we were all checked into our next flight at the Miami airport. In retrospect I maybe should have made a better decision about lunch. (In my defense, the airport had terrible lunch options. Cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and hamburgers, none of them tasting very good, apparently.)

Eventually, we were all through and waiting. Our flight was at 3, but I kept an eye on the flight that was supposed to leave at 2:40. I figured that it would give us an indication of what time we should board because, unlike O'Hare, the boarding pass didn't have boarding times listed. There were two times: 3:20 and 2:10. Neither of them were very encouraging.

At 2:10, neither flight was boarding, or even had a gate. (As we'd arrived, I noticed one flight that said it was boarding at gate A. To be honest, I don't think I saw another gate.) Same thing at 2:30. At 2:50, the 2:40 Miami flight still had as its status “on time.” I no longer believed it. And then an announcement came on, the only words of which any students caught were “Miami” and our flight number.

We stood up, stood around for a little bit, realized we had nowhere to go, and sat down again. Then someone thought to ask one of our teachers, and he said that our airplane had just arrived. 10 minutes before our scheduled departure and the airplane was already here? Awesome!
The second announcement (also not repeated in English) was apparently our cue to stand up and form a loose line. And then we could stand around in that for a while before boarding the plane.

From there, it was sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight. The plane might have been a bit smaller than normal, but there was a television screen in the middle and the announcements were bland. More or less just a typical flight.

Right off the plane, I saw posters for HSBC. Capitalism!

The teachers gathered us around, made sure we had relevant documents handy (passport, customs form we'd filled out on the plane, and the letter showing we were students) and then told us they'd meet us by baggage claim.

The walk to passport control reminded me just how big the Miami airport was. However much we'd walked to check in to our Cuba fight, we were walking more to get to passport control.

The first part of the passport control was a machine. Ideally, you scanned your passport, said you had nothing to declare, and stared at the camera as it took a picture and printed important information out. Then you took that, added that to your necessary forms, and went to the counter.

Non-ideally, you'd go through all the steps, but when you got the form you'd have an x through it. Then you'd need to stand in a counter for about half an hour.

The worst that happened to me at that stage was that I needed to wait around for about 45 seconds for a machine to become available.

Then we went to the human to check us. Ideally, you show them the passport, printout from the machine, and letter from the university and they'd let you through. Non-ideally, they'd grill you for a while. “Where were you? Cuba? What were you doing there? 'Educational purposes?' Like what? Oh, really? How long were you there? Can I see this letter? Hmmph.”

I went up to the counter, stood there trying to make the same face as I had in the picture a minute before, and went through. I wasn't even asked where I was going, and certainly didn't need to prove it with the letter.

For me, Matt, Adam, and Ben, the process was so smooth that we got to the baggage claim before our bags did. By the time they had come down and were rotating around on the belt, more people had joined us. We got all the luggage and waited around for the final group of people to arrive. (Several people had run into the non-ideal snags, especially with the machine, and others were waiting around for them.)

We regrouped and headed over to Customs and Border control together. From there, we split into the three different lines.

Worst-case scenario: you get an agent who had a really bad day/is convinced that you were smuggling rum or cigarettes in, and he goes through your bags and those of the people you're with, taking anything and everything that doesn't fit the strict definition of “fine art or educational material.” The touristy magnets aren't technically fine art or educational.

Worst-case scenario anyone in our group faced: you get an exiled Cuban-American who is none too happy with where you just came from and questions everything. (“Did you like Cuba? Did you want to stay there?” “No, I want to come home. Why do you think I'm going through customs?”)

The line I was in moved the fastest. When we were almost at the front, we looked back at the other lines and realized the rest of our group had barely moved.

Ian and Wyatt went, and then it was my turn.
“Where were you?”
(Raise of eyebrows.) “What were you doing there?
“How long were you there?”
“Ten days.”
(Glanced over form, then waved me through.)
Those short exchanges are probably why our line moved so quickly in comparison with the others.

As I was walking, I saw Wyatt and Ian doubling back.
“Where are you two going?”
“Baggage inspection is this way.”
“No. If they wanted to inspect our baggage, they would. Right now, we're following the signs for connecting flights and not questioning the ease of that last step.”

We managed to find a couple of chairs and hung out there waiting for the rest of our group to join. I don't think anyone got their bags thoroughly examined and crafts taken, but I still stand by my decision to not question why everything went so smoothly for me.

It does worry me a little, though. The entire process back was so smooth for me, it seems like my good luck needs to run out soon. Like, the next time I try to re-enter the country when they decide to question every single trip I've made. Hopefully not, though I'm definitely going to carry all the potentially necessary paperwork. Just in case.

Posted by Soseki 21:32 Comments (0)

Havana Again

It was amazing how comforting it was to be back in the Hotel Plaza. We had only spent two days there, but when I entered, I felt that rush of the familiar. Havana might not be that familiar, but it was closer than Trinidad or Santa Clara had been when we first arrived (or even when we left. That multi-hour walking tour had been good for something.)

We'd long known that we'd come back to Havana for a few days before we left. Consequently, I think everybody had the idea in their minds that the last few days in Havana were for doing everything they'd been putting off. Buying gifts for people quickly before they left. Exchanging CUC for CUP. Using up the rest of the CUC that weren't the 25 we needed to leave the country. Getting our last taste of Cuban food. (The last one is a lie, actually.)

The biggest adventure was in trying to convert to CUP. CUP (the national peso) are essentially useless to tourists. Because Cuba is on the U.S. List of state sponsors of terrorism, neither can be traded on the international market, so neither of them are technically worth anything. But the CUC can get a tourist food, lodging, books, art, etc. A national peso might get a tourist a cheaper price for food (CUP:CUC is a ratio of about 24:1), assuming that the shop owners don't look at you and go “Ha ha ha. Why do you even have national currency?”

There are really only two reasons to convert to CUP on the last day of the trip. The first is that Cuba is in the (hopefully gentle) process of converting to one currency, the CUP, and has also promised CUC in the bank will not lose their value, so you hope that the CUP experiences rather strong deflation. The other, more practical, reason is that you see it as a collector's item, and want either a huge variety, or as many bills with Che Guevara on them as possible.

Che Guevara appears on the 3 peso coin and bill. When you go to a bank and ask them to convert from CUC to CUP (if they can do it) they will give you 10s, 20s, and maybe a few coins. From there it's a fun process convincing Cubans to trade you for smaller currencies. The best case scenario in Havana was getting some fives. The worst case was ending up with 60 CUP in coins.

In any case, it was an adventure, and something to do. Other, less exciting adventures included finding food (least interesting: “look, we're standing in front of a restaurant. Let's eat there.” Most interesting: trying to walk up the stairs to a restaurant that wasn't yet open, being stopped and then led several blocks to a restaurant owned I believe by the person's parents. The food was expensive, but there was a beautiful view, and the chairs were elegantly clothed in black and white.) walking back from the restaurant we'd eaten with on the last night (it wasn't too far from the hotel, and the tour guide asked us if we wanted to take the bus back or walk back. My table said “walk,” and we only found out we'd been the only ones when everyone else left.) and looking for small items to use up money (I ended up caving and buying something in the store at the hotel, a doll for 2 CUC. Interestingly enough, that was the only one of her kind I'd seen, while the things I'd considered in actual stores in Miami were sold everywhere. If she survives the flight, it will be one of the more unique items I bought, despite the location.)

Before we left our tour guide, we gave her gifts. Beyond tip, many girls had hair and make-up products that were half empty and that they didn't need in the states that they could donate, and we had some official Carthage regalia to donate. One of them was a traveling coffee cup, and she marveled over the size of it. (Most of the coffee in Cuba are served in espresso cups.) Another was a pen, though that couldn't compete with the pen she'd shown earlier that day. Another tour group had given her a pen that you uncap by twisting, but when her mother had used it, she'd tried to take off the top. The pen had split to reveal a USB drive. (I saw that and thought “that would have been fun to have had while visiting the Interests section.) Then we hugged her goodbye and promised to visit her as soon as we could again.

And then we entered the airport.

Posted by Soseki 09:24 Comments (0)

US Interests Section

During the beginning of the trip, Ryan commented “I find it depressing that they scheduled a meeting with the U.S. Interests section on our last day in Cuba. It's like they're planning ahead and know some of us will lose our passports.”

Although the U.S. Interests section is where we would go if we'd lost our passports, it would have been in a very different capacity. We (by which I mean our professors and tour guide) had scheduled a meeting with the American Civil Services Chief. We had to show our passports four different times to get in.

The first time was right as we got off the bus and we went in groups of four to a security checkpoint. We'd hand them the passports, they looked us over, and then we went in through the gate.

Then we had to take everything out of our pockets, hand over our passports, and go to the metal detector. We'd been warned not to bring purses or cameras, but hadn't heard anything about USB drives. The day before I had rummaged all through my luggage to find one, and then this morning I'd found the other one I thought I'd lost, so I was carrying too. When the security guard told me I needed to hand them over at the top of the stairs, my first reaction was “I wish I hadn't just found my other one.”

We went up some stairs and actually entered a building where, surprise surprise, we had to hand over our passports for another security check. I eventually managed to hand over my my USB drives and got in return a laminated sheet of paper with the words “Visitor 95” on it, which gave me a hope of seeing them again.

Then we traded our passports for a bade. This time I was Visitor 17, and the line at the bottom said “escort required.”

It as all very exciting and over in about a third the time it should have taken. We'd been told to schedule ourselves half an hour to get through security, but it didn't take more than ten minutes. I think that's the first time since leaving for Cuba that something's taken less time than it was supposed to.

Because we were early, we had someone else step in to fill time and give a little exposition. And then Rocco Costa came in, and the other official gleefully left with a “Now he can answer all of your questions. 'When will the Embargo end?' 'When are you releasing the Miami Five?' 'When can we see Fidel?'

We didn't directly ask any of those questions. The closest was asking what the exchange of the Miami Five for Alan Gross would do. “First of all, we are not considering any such exchange. Alan Gross was a civilian, and not a spy. Things would almost have been better for him if he had in fact been working for the U.S. Government, since we exchange intelligence agents for intelligence agents. But Alan Gross was not an intelligence agent, whereas the Miami 5 clearly were. Furthermore, the Miami Five is actually the Miami Four now, and will soon be the Miami Three. One of them was released recently, and another will be released soon. However, it would ruin their nice slogans like 'Obama give me Five!' so they tend not to emphasize that in the press. But one of them is home and living with his family, probably as a hero, right now.”
He talked a bit about his own experience in Havana. Because the United States has as “interests section” and not an embassy, they are somewhat reliant on Switzerland. (It's the same for Cubans in D.C.) He made a point out of saying that it wasn't terribly reliant, mostly they just needed the Swiss for letterheads and license plates.

Although the U.S. and Cuba aren't friendly, he doesn't really have hostile interactions with his peers in Cuba. Mostly, he doesn't have interactions. Foreign service agents are restricted to a 25-mile radius (I wonder if he was jealous of how far we could go) though they can request a leave to go farther, and in the past year or so Cuba has been granting it. Because Cuba is considered a “hard” area, he's here for 2 years, not three. He laughed as he said that, so I think he likes Cuba just fine.

I forget what the question was, but there was an answer which included the phrase “Sales tax is 94-96%.” After we left, some people were expressing doubt about that figure. I'd believe it, simply because the average annual salary of Cubans is so low. You wouldn't want to give an advantage to salespeople like that. Of course, that doesn't mean shopkeepers are accurately keeping track of what is sold or at what price it is sold, so there is still some advantage.

He talked a little about immigration. One of our professors had mentioned that ten years ago, the lines of Cubans outside the Interests section had been extremely long, and she hadn't noticed that today. The response was twofold. First of all, it looks bad for the Cuban government when there are that many people who want to leave, so they try and limit the number of people standing there at any point in time. The other reason is that the U.S. has started granting more visas, both tourist and living.

And of course we asked him about the embargo. That's one of the things we'd come here to study. We didn't ask “when will it end,” directly, but we did ask roundabout questions that hinted at the same idea.

During the classes before we went to Cuba, one of our teachers had given his opinion on what he thought the U.S. should do with regards to Cuba. He was in favor of an immediate end to the embargo and travel restrictions. Flood Cuba, and leave them to figure out where they're going when they have the sudden influx of goods and ideas and people. I disagreed with him completely, so it was nice when Rocco Costa started talking and I realized the two of us had the same ideas.

Cubans hate the embargo. For the average Cuban, the embargo means restricted access to medicine, restricted access to food, potatoes being expensive, etc. But the embargo plays a huge role in shaping Cuba's identity. It also plays a decent role in winning international sympathy. Cuba is a tiny country that has the support of every other nation in the world except the United States, Israel, Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands. The United States and Israel are the only countries in favor of the embargo.

Cuba is also fragile. I noticed that a bit in the readings we had to do before the class, and a bit while I was there. It's not like it's on the verge of collapse, but a sudden end to the embargo would be enough to shake a stable country. It would probably shatter Cuba.

For an example, consider their health care. It, along with the literacy rate, is one of the things that Cuba loves to boast about. And it is very good. Without easy access to medicines sold in the United States, it has needed to develop its own biotech industry. Without easy access to medicines sold in the United States, it has needed to create a rather stunning implementation of preventive care.

If you start to get sick in Cuba, you call a doctor. They have the highest doctor to patient ratio in the world, and there's one in your neighborhood who is on call 24/7. You might go from there to a clinic, or, if it's more serious, to the hospital. You stay until you feel better, and even if you're at home, you'd have a nurse coming by to administer medicine. Minus the part where you need to bring your own bedsheets because you can't trust them to be clean, it sounds pretty good. And, of course, healthcare is covered by the state.

It's not a perfect system, but it's working pretty well for Cuba. Now imagine an immediate end to the embargo and travel restrictions. While the doctors are still trying to figure out what to do with the medication they can now get, the hospitals might become flooded with Americans who are here for cheap health care. For the doctors who are earning less than a tour guide (no generous foreigners to tip them) this might be the last straw that makes them leave.

It's hard to predict, but Cuba's infrastructure isn't that stable. If the United States were to end the embargo all at once, the Cuban government would need to step in and regulate what can and can't come in. It would take away the main enemy Cuba has had since the revolution and stir some discontent among the people. A sudden end to the embargo would be one of the cruelest things the United States could do that would still have the support of the world.

The embargo is still a problem, though, and should not be continued indefinitely. Rather, it should be gradually lifted. Rocco Costa suggested a series of smaller steps, and listed the first three. The first, loosening travel estrictions, has already happened. After all, we were sitting there talking with him. The second was to allow certain industries to come in. I'm not sure which industries, but probably allow them in one at a time and giving Cuba time to adjust to each of them would be the best way to go. Third, allowing full-fledged diplomatic status. (That could have been biased, given who we were talking to. Swiss letterheads aren't that pretty.)

Although I agree with a gentle lifting of the embargo, I think there's an important step that can happen right away. Cuba is on the U.S. List of State Sponsors of Terrorism. The three other countries with that distinction are Iran, Sudan, and Syria. The Cuban government has said many times that they do not support terrorism, and there has been no indication that they are lying, but they've been on the list since 1982. Its presence on this list is part of why neither Cuban currency has any value outside of Cuba.

Between its own government and the United States government, Cuba is in a delicate position. It's complicated by their reluctance to communicate with each other, and it's hard to say what consequences certain changes can make.

I like Cuba. I want to be able to come back. I want other people to be able to go there. I'd like to see the steps occur to make that possible.

Posted by Soseki 09:23 Comments (0)

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