A Travellerspoint blog

La Guantanamera

So we were free until noon. Basically, we could get up at a decent hour and explore in a small group

(not 14 people because getting 14 college students to wake up so they're ready at 8:30 for a non-
mandatory activity isn't likely) or we could sleep in. Personally, I was in favor of the first option. I

found 3 other people of a similar opinion, so we were out of the hotel by 9 (8:30 was for breakfast)

with the plan of being back by eleven.

(There were other people who left later, and also stayed out later. I and one other person in my group

had roommates who got in a little before 4 that morning, so we wanted to make sure our roommates

were up.)

So we left and followed one street for a while, looking in at various things as they caught our attention.

There was a lot that wasn't open yet, but we did stop in a few shops. Our tour guide yesterday had

called a shoe store a “shoe museum” because Cubans went in, looked at the prices, and came back out

again , so we were curious to see what those prices were. We went into two shoe stores, which only

served to remind me how expensive shoes in the United States can be. Unlike, say, cars, there's not a

huge increase in price, so the shoes are roughly equivalent to prices in the States.

We walked through the Plaza del Armes, which we had passed yesterday on the walking tour. We must

have been going around in circles because the Plaza del Armes had been one of the first places we'd

been to, and I'd had no idea it was a straight walk to the hotel. The booksellers, like other shop owners,

were still setting up, so we continued on.

We'd been aiming for the water that had been by the restaurant we'd eaten on the first day, withotu

much thought of what we'd do when we got there. So when we arrived, we took a few pictures and

went “what now?” So we kept walking for a little bit.

We were approached by two people who asked if we wanted a tour in a classic car. The second person

(we were standing in the same place for a long time) was the manager of the first, so his English was

phenomenal. He also made the tour sound a lot more interesting. In part because one of the people I

was with asked about a fort in the distance, and the guide (Joel) knew exactly how to respond. “You

have two ways to get there. You can swim, or you can take a taxi. But on my tour, I'll take you there. I'll

take you to Che's house.” (He points at it.) “I'll take you to the Jesus statue.” It was 30 CUC per hour,

as a group. We didn't have time then, but we would be back in Havana near the end of the trip. Joel

gave us his business card. (“It's capitalist, but it.'s useful.”)

Then we went back to the Plaza del Armes, and I felt the lure of books. It was like being back in Paris,

only I understood the language less. I was mainly just looking because I was curious about what kind

of books they had. And then my group asked if I wanted to stop and look closer and... well, I did. When

I picked up a book of poetry by Jose Marti (again, just to look at it,) someone came over to talk to me

about it. And to be polite, I asked how much. “Five.” I didn't really need the book, and even if I could

read Spanish better than I could speak it, I didn't know it. “Four.”Well... OK.

It was slightly more premeditated than that. Jose Marti is the main Cuban author. He was a well-
known poet, and was exiled to the United States, where he lived for 15 years.. He did not like it there.

He wrote several essays and a column for an Argentine newspaper where he advocated for

revolutionary activity in his home country. He took it one step farther, and died on the battlefield

fighting for Cuba.

Besides being a good poet in his own right, Marti was particularly honored after the Cuban Revolution.

For example, the airport is named for him. And while you can't just walk into any tourist shop to buy a

picture of him the way you could for Che Guevara, most of the artists I've seen have pictures of Marti.

So I had thought it through before. And I would like to learn functional Spanish at some point.

After that we headed back to the hotel, though at a leisurely pace. We had a bit more time, so we went

to look at the capitol. It looks a lot like the US capitol, only more under construction. Then we headed

back, made sure our roommates were awake, and waited around to leave.

I liked Havana. Certainly, it was very touristy, but it was also a city. I know a lot of people on this trip

are looking forward to places where not everyone is approaching with the end goal of getting money,

(everything from hoping we'll buy something to hoping we'll just give it to them directly.) Still, I'm a

little sad to be leaving, and I'm glad we'll be back at the end of the trip to see more than just the airport.

Posted by Soseki 13:56 Comments (0)

You Get the People and the Government

This morning we got up around 7:30 and went to breakfast about an hour later. Breakfast was on the

rooftop, though we couldn't sit outside because it was too crowded.

At O'Hare, I'd gotten into a conversation with several other people in which we'd tried to figure out

what kind of things would probably be served at a Cuban breakfast. We'd settled on it probably being

simple and starchy, a lot like the breakfast we had had in Miami (muffin, waffles, limited fruit

selection... your average continental breakfast at a decently cheap hotel.) So the breakfast at Havana

was kind of surprising.

Essentially, parts of three walls were lined with food, plus there was a table in the middle. The first

thing I noticed when I came in was a long line. After kind of standing in it for a little bit, I realized that

line was for juice and coffee. (Later when I stood in it for juice I realized that the majority of the line

was actually for coffee.)

The first table didn't seem like breakfast food. There were a lot of vegetables like I think cabbage

(unlabeled) and pumpkin (labeled pumpky.)

The next table seemed familiar as American breakfast. There were “hot cakes”, potatoes, eggs, etc.

Most of them had spoons that were too hot to hold.

After that there were a selection of meats and cheeses. I heard other people discussing and saying they

were basically all Italian-style meats. There was a line that I was gladly able to skip to get to the next


The next time had fruit. Papaya, pineapple, oranges, and grapefruit. The grapefruit was a bit sour, but

the rest of it was pretty good. Apparently I was the only person at my table of four who had tasted

papaya before, because the rest of my table was in consensus that it was disappointing compared to

papaya juice.

The table after that, as well as the table in the middle, had bread. I'm pretty sure some of the rolls were

purely decorative, because they were too colorful for me to want to eat them. Some of them were plain

bread, others were sweeter, like covered in sugar or cinnamon rolls.

There were four (but really three) different juice flavors. Orange that was out of order, apple, pineapple,

mixed fruit, and also water. Halfway across the room was papaya juice, fresh, that I didn't notice until it

was empty.

The coffee machine had four options. Regular, cafe con leche, chocolate (presumably hot chocolate)

and something else I forget that wasn't actually coffee. The cafe con leche had a lot of milk. It looked

like it was at least half milk, but it tasted like it might it Italy. (For dinner the first night, they offered

coffee, and I took mine black. It was the coffee equivalent of 85% dark chocolate.)

Then we went down to the lobby, waited around until 9:00, and all got into the bus to visit an economic

building. We had a meeting with someone who we later found out had recently switched jobs to be

advisor to Raul Castro. He talked about GDP, imports, exports, problems with those, efforts to raise

profits, other macroeconomic concerns,

Some parts of the presentation were really interesting, other parts were much more boring.. Probably

the best part was the very last question, asked by one of our professors. “I've lived in the Soviet Union

and Russia. I was there when they were trying economic reforms, and it was a mess. What makes you

think Cuba will be any better?”

There wee essentially two reasons. First, the person we were talking with was optimistic about their

changes. Second, Cuba is much closer to the US then the Soviet Union was. Even with the blockade

and the restrictions on travel, Cuba has American music and movies and pizza. “We know very well the

occidental world and how to live in it. And that makes us different from the Soviet Union.”

At one point, our speaker admitted he didn't have a crystal ball, and he was only making predictions.

It's also not entirely under Cuban control. US actions like the Embargo and keeping Cuba on the list of

state sponsors or terrorism have consequences,and other US policies could have new and unpredictable

effects on Cuba. So it will be interesting to see what Cuba looks like in the next five, ten, and twenty


After that, we drove to lunch. 15 CUC got two people either a meat and lobster or seafood meal. (There

were other options, but most people went with one of those two.) I split the meat and lobster with one

other person, but probably could have comfortably split it with 3. Each of us got a plate of rice with

black beans and what appeared to some kind of vegetable stuffing. We also got a platter that had one

lobster tail, a chicken leg with plenty of extra meet, two pieces of thin steak, two pieces of pork, and

two pieces of what I think were fish. I ate my plate, one of the pieces of steak, and half the lobster and

was done..

We'd been told to wear comfortable shoes because we were going to be doing a lot of walking. In the

room that morning, I'd debated whether my sandals counted as comfortable. Obviously my tennis shoes

were more comfortable than sandals, but they were also much warmer, which makes them less

comfortable. I was debating, and Allie, one of my roommates, (I'm in a triple) had suggested I bring

both. My bag was big enough, and I could leave it on the bus. That backfired when the tour guide

announced “we're going on a walking tour. Bring your bags because we're not coming back to the bus.”

At least if my feet started to hurt mid-walk I could change...

The walking tour was a mixture of the historic with the more modern. We saw everything from the

outside of the place in which the iconic woman who appears on bottles of rum and in statues in Cuba

lived to a clinic where woman who were having issues during pregnancy could stay. Women stay there

until they're better and can go home . The clinic includes everything that women need , like meals and


Along the way, we got stories. Such as: “Every November, as part of a holiday, woman would come

here one day and circle around the tree three times depositing a coin, and they would wish for a

husband. As you can see, husbands were cheap at that time: about one coin. Now, there are still long

lines, and people come to make a wish, but we have better things to wish for then husbands.”

Or, about the woman who afore mentioned iconic woman: “Her husband was a governor, so she lived

here. One day, he needed to leave, but he promised to be back soon.. every day the woman would go up

to that tower and look for him, but her husband never came back. Eventually , she died of a broken

heart. Nowadays, women would wait 3, 4 month. Maybe 5 if she really love husband. No more than

six before she remarry.” I hope that's not a genuine time estimate...

“Look down at the street. What is this street made out of?” We looked down, then, cautiously, as if

afraid it were a trick question, “wood?” That was the correct answer, but the trick is why any street

would be made of wood. “There was a governor's wife who lived in that room. In those days, there

weren't cars. So vehicles on the cobblestone made a lot of noise, and disturbed the rest of the governor's

wife. So she ask her husband 'can you replace all of the cobblestone with wood?' He try, but it was very

expensive. So he only replace this one street so she can rest.” I believe that happened in the early 20th

century. That street is still in phenomenal condition.

It was a nice, informative, beautiful tour, and the weather could not have been more perfect, but it was

long. Pretty much everyone started getting tired and wanting to be done with the tour about fifteen

minutes before it was over. Finally it was done and the professors gathered us together to tell us that we

were free to go off, as long as we stayed with at least one other person and exercised common sense.

(It's a problem for several people, which is why groups were good.) We should meet tomorrow in the

lobby at noon with our rooms cleared out ready to leave.

Since we'd taken a rather roundabout tour, the tour guide led us back to the hotel at least those who

wanted to, which was pretty much everyone. We wanted to go out again, but we wanted to drink water,

change our shoes, change our clothing, drop off our bags, etc. first. When we were within sight of the

hotel, the tour guide looked around, realized there were only fourteen of us, and went back a little bit

to see if she could find the missing people.

The rest of us looked around and considered who we were missing. The trip has 13 college students, 5

adults auditing the class, and 2 teachers. Every single college student was in the group standing near

the hotel, as was the adult who was the father of one of the kids on the trip. Basically, no one was

missing their roommate. This was enough to lead us to assume that the people who weren't there were

very deliberately not there, so we went to tell our tour guide “When the teachers dismissed us, what

they meant was 'we don't want to see you until noon tomorrow..' The others will find their own way

back, so we're going to go to the hotel.

After a break that felt much shorter than it was, we were all out and about. All 14 of us. Personally, I

would have liked a group half that size. I've had too much practice making sure we didn't lose anyone

from a group that I'm constantly looking around counting people. With 8 or less people I don't even

notice how often I do it. With 14 I'm constantly making a very conscious effort.

Besides which, 14 people is a pain for dinner. Especially when you consider how many restaurants in

Cuba are paladares, operated out of one's home. Before going up to dinner, we did ask if they could

seat 14, and they said they could. It filled the entire restaurant, and made food take so much longer.

(Around halfway through the time I'd been waiting for my food, the waitress went up to someone and

said they were out of bread, so he needed to choose something other than a sandwich. He ordered a

pizza.' it arrived at about the same time mine did.

Dinner did contain a small Spanish triumph for me, though. The waitress had fairly bad English, so I

was asking someone at my table who had studied Spanish how to say “without.” (I was considering

ordering a pineapple pizza.) I decided it would be easier to just go off the menu, but when I ordered a

Margarita pizza, they were out. So I switched back to the Spanish side of the menu to check

vocabulary, then ordered a “Pizza Hawainne sin jamon.” The waitress took note of it without

commenting again, and I had no way of knowing if I had done that right until our food was finally

ready, and I got my pineapple pizza.

It was really good. Both the bread and sauce were different than what I'm used to. The pizza was a bit

sweet, but overall good. So it was a fine restaurant, even if it wasn't quite equipped for all 14 of us.

Posted by Soseki 13:55 Comments (0)

If You Walk the Footprints of a Stranger

Because we'd been in the first group to fly, we had time to explore before dinner. (The other group was
supposed to get in around 7, so we arranged to meet at the lobby at 7:30 to go to dinner. We had
reservations at 8. The rest of our group arrived at 8:30.)
So the two other people my age and I set off to explore Havana a little bit. We'd just left the hotel when
a security guard (really more of a concierge. They tried to help direct us every time we left, and despite
calling themselves security guards, the only thing I saw them even try to keep out was a dog, so they
seem to do more as concierges than security.) asked us where we were planning on going. We said we
didn't really know, just exploring, so he suggested we go down this street and then to the right, and it
would be pretty.
It was. It was also decently filled with people. We'd just arrived when two of them came up to us and
started talking. It went against most of my instinct to engage them, but we were in Cuba to learn, and a
significant amount of our time was free so we could do things like talk to the locals in small groups. So
I waited around the other two people in my group and talked with the two Cubans (David and... no one
remembers the name of the of the woman.)
They talked (in English) about a festival, asked us if we wanted to see it, and then led us to a cafe
where music was playing. They continued to talk to us, answer and ask questions. They also asked us
to buy them something to drink, a CD of the band that was playing and then, near the end of our time,
asked for money (10 CUC) to buy milk for the child of the woman.
Crash course on Cuban money: there are two different forms of currency, the CUC (convertible peso)
and the national peso. It takes about 24 national peso to make one CUC. CUC to dollar is roughly
equivalent, though there's a tax that's anywhere from 10 to 20% every time you exchange money. (You
can exchange money at any hotel, and they make a careful point out of counting it out to show you, but
the percent amounts are not consistent.)
So CUC are what all of the tourists have. They're also what everyone who works with tourists have.
They're also what people who receive remittances from family in the United States have. The average
Cuban makes around $25 a month in national currency. Hence why Cubans are so eager for tourists.
And most Cubans in the street of the Cubans I've met have been incredibly enthusiastic. Especially at
places like cafes or stores, where they don't need to ask for more money. We went into a very nice art
store, where obviously the owner wanted us to buy something, but was very nice when we said “we'll
come back later. They're very pretty, but I don't want to buy anything now.” We also made an employee
at the hotel very happy with a generous tip when a group of 8 of us went out after dinner. We later saw
on a sign that the place should have closed around an hour and a half before we got there, so he
definitely deserved it.
So one day in Cuba. I'm still trying to adjust to a very different way of approaching travel. I don't know
the language, which adds a level of difficulty. So going out of the way to talk to people is difficult, and
I don't want to end up giving away all my money just because they asked and I don't know how to say
now. It's a balance that I'm not quite sure how to reach.
Cubans love tourists, but not always for the right reasons.

Posted by Soseki 20:31 Comments (0)

If I Could Get to Heaven By an Airplane in the Sky

The flight from O'Hare to Miami was about what I've grown to expect from domestic flights. It got in
late (around 11:15) but was a nice smooth flight, with normal amounts of waiting. The flight from
Miami to Havana was a good deal different from anything I had ever experienced.
First of all, the group of 20 people were not all together. Initially we were supposed to be, but then
relatively last-minute (Thursday or Friday) we were split into two different groups. The first group of 8
was getting a 1:00 flight out of Miami, the second group of 12 was taking a 5:00 flight out of Miami. I
was in the earlier group.
Our flight was at 1, so we aimed to arrive at the airport at 9:00. This meant targeting departure for 8:00
(we arranged a shuttle from the airport at that time) because inevitably things happen like the driver
deciding at 7:45 to take other people to the airport and come back for us a little late, and before you
know it it's 8:30 and we're fighting the group that had arranged for an 8:30 shuttle as to why we should
be allowed to go first. (It worked out very peacefully, but was still kind of frustrating.)
We did make it to the airport by nine, which was good, because we had arranged to meet with someone
who would help make sure we got through the US side of things fine. We were there on time. She
wasn't. She did show up with the necessary paperwork we were missing (Landing Vouchers, which I
didn't turn in despite landing in Cuba) then told us what forms to have out and ready. And then we took
an elevator down and walked what seemed to be the entire length of the Miaimi International Airport
basement level. I kept catching myself turning around to make sure we hadn't lost anyone. Old habits
die hard, but I will say it's much easier with 8 people than with the 20 at O'Hare.
The US side of things wasn't all that terrible. I made sure I had the necessary paperwork ready, watched
the Professor going with us as he went through everything he was supposed to do, and was prepared
when the officials asked me to do the same. Even whent hey asked me to do somewhat bizarre things
like step onto the scale like I was a bag about to be weighed.
We'd budgeted ourselves a lot of time because it could sometimes take a lot of time, but even with the
multiple delays we'd had, we were through security with over two hours to spare. Enough time for a
nice wandering around looking for places that sold international phones, lunch, and plenty of time at
the gate. Especially when the departure time got pushed from 1 to 1:30.
At 1:20, we were sitting at gate J6. The Departures board still said that the 1:00 flight to Havana was
now leaving at 1:30 from J6. Not only was there no plane, there was no sign of any official people who
knew what was going on. There was a family who were (I believe) visiting a close relative living in
Cuba (I didn't catch that much of the conversation) and several women who might have been Cuban
American. One of them assured me that there was no problem, flights to Cuba were always like that.
Always late.
And then, with a single announcement, we were suddenly all lining up and showing our boarding
passes and passports to get in. we went straight from there to a room which we all had to crowd into
and wait. It felt like we were in one of those amusement park haunted castle tours where the room
would turn out to be an elevator so that they could show the wall decorations changing. But an elevator
wouldn't quite get us to Havana.
Then they opened the other set of doors, and we could walk through, go down a flight of stairs, and get
onto a bus. The bus brought us to the plane. The plane didn't look that small until you turned around
and remembered what size a real plane was. And then you realized our plane was significantly smaller
than others.
The first three rows had double the leg room. Literally, you could have fit another seat in between each
of those rows without any objection from passengers. I was sitting in 3C, a window seat in the first
three rows. (The plane only had 3 seats per row.) It was wonderful. I mean, sure, the seat in front of me
was so far ahead that I couldn't easily reach the bag I put there., and storing items in the seat pocket
was pointless. But leg room!
The flight attendant (I believe there was just the one) was also a good deal friendlier than I'm used to
flight attendants being. He joked with each passenger, both individually, and also while making official
“M'aam, I'm going to have to ask you to put those (knitting needles) away. I don't want you stabbing
the person sitting next to you (which was the teacher we were traveling with. Probably being right
behind him during check-in is what got me in the first 3 rows) during take-off. Once you're in the air
it's OK.” (I did put away my knitting to take out my notebook and pen. A .3mm gel ink pen is a lot
sharper than US 2 bamboo needles, so it was only an illusion of safety.)
“In the event of an emergency, put on your own oxygen mask before helping any others who are
traveling with you and are unable to help themselves, such as children, or adults who are acting like
(As the plane touched down.) “Welcome to Miami.”
He also did come around with bottles of water and bags of chips. It didn't entirely surprise me that we
were being fed on this flight but not the other one.
Overall, wonderful flight experience. Also (maybe not entirely coincidental) only 45 minutes. It kind of
felt like the waste of an airplane. Havana is only 90 south of Miami. It wouldn't be worth the separate
flight, except that there are still a relatively small number of airports that fly into Havana. The Havana
airport is pretty small.
During one of the classes we'd had before leaving, our teachers had told us we would not be getting
passport stamps. They'd then proceeded to tell us that this was a good thing, because if it were in a
passport we would be questioned every time we try to reenter the United States.
So after landing I was somewhat alarmed by how long the person was taking checking my passport and
Visa. And making a lot of different punchy/stampy noises. This, combined with the fact that the place
we were standing was claustrophobia-inducing (someone described it as being like a horse stall) and
the fact that I was told to take off my glasses and then focus on a camera I hadn't noticed before
combined to make it rather nerve-wracking. And then there was a buzzing noise and I was trying to
figure out if I should wait or go through the door and then I had trouble opening the door, and.... once I
was through and was just waiting for everyone else and my luggage to show up, I checked my passport.
The person from Cuba had stamped it.
I really hope this isn't an issue the next time I travel.

Posted by Soseki 20:30 Comments (1)

I've Been to MIA

The point of the trip is to go to Cuba, not Miami. Still, I did spend over 12 hours in Miami, which
makes it part of the trip.
There was so much Spanish. Miami might not be right next to Mexico the way some other US cities
are, but it has enough flights to Latin American countries to make bilingualism a job requirement, at
least in the places I was. (Airport and hotel near the airport. I never claimed it was a representative
The person who drove the shuttle from the hotel to the Airport was from Colombia, and had a Cuban
girlfriend. He'd majored in political science with a minor in history, and I believe was planning on
being a lawyer.
Our waiter at lunch was from Nicaragua. Many other people who I spoke with either spoke with a
Spanish accent or later spoke Spanish to someone else.
From the people going on the trip with me, I learned just how different Spanish can be from country to
country. I knew there was a differences between Spain's Spanish and the Spanish of Latin America, and
it makes sense that there would be regional differences, but the number of differences from country to
country sounds terrifying. There are multiple different words for “avocado,” depending on where you
come from. There are about half a dozen different ways to refer to a bus. And that's without getting into
how much of Spanish is apparently idioms.
There are multiple people on the trip with me who have studied Spanish for years, spoken it in a
foreign country, and are looking at Cuba and going “yeah. I don't know how much I'll be able to
understand. Or be understood.”
Still, their Spanish will probably be way more useful than my Japanese, or even French. Hopefully
English will be good enough.
Most of my interactions with people who worked in Miami came while we were asking (in English) if
they sold either cell phones or SIM cards that worked in Cuba. Most of the responses were “No. Have
you tried” and then they named another store. Once the salesperson suggested trying in Cuba, which
was presumably the only worthwhile suggestions, since none of the American-side stores had them.
Probably the two most unique responses we got were:
“Um... we have an iPone 5S.” So if I wanted to spend a lot of money ons something that wouldn't work
in Cuba, I could have.
Laughter. “Cuba? No, we don't have anything that works there. Try <name of other store.> They might
help. Maybe.” The store she directed us to was the one that tried to sell us an iPhone.
Miami seemed nice, though. Warm, too. I wouldn't mind spending more time there, though I'd rather
spend that time in Cuba.

Posted by Soseki 20:29 Comments (0)

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