Last Commie Standing (almost): Cuba on the Installment Plan

Taxi in Havana

Taxi in Havana

January 2009

After three more days in Jamaica… on to Havana… got the $250RT killer deal to Cuba, half the normal price… $6-700 round trip to Cuba from Tijuana, no need to hip-hop the Caribbean.  But that’s a slow way to reach 200 countries… Havana’s little more than an hour from Jamaica.

If you’ve never been to a Communist country, then you should go: the cold gray architecture, the suspicious glances, and the general lack of… anything.  The hard part is timing: real Soviet/Bolshevik-style communism, on the cusp of their coming out.  Frankly I was surprised—even shocked—to see Cuba in the backward state it’s in.

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Auto time warp in Havana

Cuba’s a trip, pure time travel.  They’ve even got horse-drawn carts here, and not just for tourists.  Cuba is crawling into the future on all fours… Tourism way up for sure, but that’s mostly out at Varadero beach, most of whom will get only a day tour of the “real thing.”

Lonely Planet talks about the ‘increasing congestion’ of Havana traffic.  That’s a joke.  This is like Communist Southeast Asia c.1995, maybe Phnom Penh or Vientiane, vacant streets and people camping in the ruins.

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Street food rules in Havana

…as I slowly readjust my point of reference to the reality here rather than the reality I come from, my mood starts improving.  There IS life here, and lots of it, however subdued and tentative…

When I first walked the streets looking at prices for street grub, I was shocked.  Then I realized those were prices in local currency (mn), not the convertible currency (cuc) I was holding…

Sh*t’s dirt cheap here, at least street food, in local currency.  How about a glass of fresh fruit or sugar cane juice for… better sit down… a nickel? Or a sandwich for a quarter, or maybe your own personal pizza?  Sound good?  The pizza is no great shakes of course.

Harder to find is good espresso, notwithstanding all the little jiggers of café Cubano being sold on the streets, but the street stuff is sweeter and not fresh pressed, though still not bad for a nickel a swallow.  I’ve found it as cheap as a penny.

Rush hour in Havana

Rush hour in Havana

I also found a couple places with good espresso and nothing illustrates the pricing dilemma better.  One charges one ‘mn’, the other one ‘cuc’, a nickel or a buck, take your pick.

…your ATM card won’t work, though, but a European one might.  My Thai card doesn’t work either.  I better change an AmEx traveler’s cheque just to make sure I’m covered.  Cambios won’t take them but a bank should.  They don’t, but send me to some place that should.  They don’t, but gave me a list of locations of the bank that does.

I decide to take a long walk to find the bus station and accidentally find one of the bank branches I’m looking for.  With minimum hassle they indeed cash me one, so that little spot of bother should be mitigated.  There’s only one problem remaining—Internet (sound of needle scratching long and hard against an old vinyl LP).

Havana: "spoke with my chambermaid"...

Havana: “spoke with my chambermaid”…

The hotel I’m staying in has no wi-fi and charges $6-7 PER HOUR to use the rental box downstairs.  They all do.  This apparently is the standard, and gringos queue up for the privilege.  It’s barbaric, not a cyber café to be had on the streets.  What do the locals do? Stay tuned…

To be continued…

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