It started with a text message from my buddy, Joshua. “Wanna go to Cuba for a week…”
We’d actually talked about the possibility of the trip at lunch a week before. He’s working on a venture doing short-term study abroad trips and was doing a few weeks of testing and making marketing materials and pulled together some students with last-minute time to go.
Day One: Baltimore to Havana
Late Saturday night I caught the last Greyhound from Union Station up to Baltimore after beginning the packing process to late in the evening and missing the last MARC train up. Thankfully, I made it with just a few minutes to spare. Early the next morning I made it into BWI for my connecting flight in Fort Lauderdale.
It started raining on our descent in Ft. Lauderdale, a trend that would continue into that afternoon. At the gate, they sold visas for 55 USD and it took them just a few minutes. JetBlue seems to still be figuring out demand for the route to Cuba and I had the entire row open on my flight.
It was a quick 45 minutes from takeoff to landing in Havana. The airport is well outside the city and you could only see rural land surrounding the runway which battled back creeping overgrowth along the concrete seams. We had to wait for a covered set of stairs to meet the airplane as it rained steadily.
Off the stairs and into a waiting bus we packed like sardines. As one of the last on the bus, I was the first off. I was nearly pushed into a huge puddle beside the sidewalk, but stepped over and was into the security and immigration processing.
The age of the security staff was very surprising, no one could have been more than 30 years old and their casual attitudes and short hemlines highlighted this. Underneath the poorly kept uniforms the girls wore stockings of various fishnet thickness and design to accompany the skirts that weren’t longer than the ones girls in high school wore from Hollister.
Through the security checkpoint and after turning my forms, I was released from the quiet of that area to the teeming mass of Cubans waiting the arrivals of tourists. Most held up signs with specific names on them looking for someone. I navigated through the crowd toward the Cadeca (money exchange) to turn my dollars into CUCs, one of the two types of currency in Cuba. CUCs were used by foreigners and were about equivalent to 1 USD. However, that didn’t include the 10% fee they charged, effectively turning every 100 USD into about 87 CUCs. The landlady warned of this and said that she had a better rate near our rented home. So I exchanged about 40 USD to last that day and evening.
At the airport I met Joshua De Gastyne, the trip organizer, and Thomas Bright, an incoming law student at UVA. We had planned to share a taxi together out to our rented house.
We negotiated our taxi from 75 CUCs down to 30 (we had been warned of how much they overcharge) and began the trip. The airport is far from the city center so we travelled more than 25 minutes to get into Regla, which is on the south side of the Port of Havana (Puerto de la Habana). Those 25 minutes gave us a good sense of the rural parts of Cuba. Farms dotted the land around the road like the potholes we avoided. Some livestock ate amongst the fields and on occasion we saw roads large enough to indicate there was a significant population at the end of them. One memorable mural painted on the side of a massive abandoned factory was a portrait of an indistinguishable man in Cuban revolutionary military garb. Below the mural were painted the words, “Socialismo o muerte!”
We found the rest of our group and settled into our rented home. Rounding out the team for this week: Christian Say, a senior at Princeton; Miklos Szebeni, a recent graduate of Princeton; Brooks Powell, a senior at Princeton and the videographer; and finally, his wife Shelby, a recent graduate of the University of Oklahoma and the photographer.
Once we dropped off our bags and unpacked a bit, we took the first of many ferry rides across the bay and into Old Havana (Habana Vieja). Immediately off the ferry there’s the Casa Bahia Habana hotel which we’ve stopped by many times for Wi-Fi cards and at least once a round of beers. We followed the coastal road northwest leading out of the bay into Old Havana to find food. Less than a few hundred yards down the street, we came to an ancient Russian Orthodox Church, Basílica San Francisco de Asis. It bordered a large square with a fountain in the middle.
We continued walking and eventually stopped at La Imprenta, a fairly touristy restaurant that caught our eye because of the plates they served with smoking coals in small bowls. At the bar we waited with rum and mojitos for twenty minutes before our table opened. Once we sat down, I noticed one of the menu items was “Moors and Christians.” We asked and found out that was a euphemism for rice and beans. We finished the night there and headed back for much needed sleep.
Day Two: Havana
This morning we had orientation. Joshua walked us through the week and what to expect. Because this was their first week and the point was to capture everything on film and produce marketing materials, he wanted to explain that and what they were trying to do. We had a brief icebreaker, playing Bananagrams using only Spanish words. The two that I played were pan and pene.
We ate breakfast at the apartment. It consisted of bread buns, jelly, and butter. The buns are bought daily at a local store. For 1 CUC (about $1.05), you get a full grocery bag of 24 rolls.
After our spartan breakfast, we took the ferry into Havana and headed to the Capitol. You can see the top of the dome from across the bay and it’s striking in the way the Duomo is in Florence. The dome rises above the rest of the city and is strikingly elegant from a distance. Once you get close though, you see the truth. The dome rises amidst a yard of dead grass and broken concrete. The streets around it are dirty and ungoverned. Across from the steps of the capitol are apartments falling apart with laundry hanging from the windows. In the words of one Cuban I spoke to, “Es Cuba.”
A few gardens surrounded the capitol, adjoined by a cigar factory and the remaining facade of an old apartment. In one we found a statue of a large bust of Abraham Lincoln. Throughout the week we saw statues of foreign leaders and wondered why they were there. The common theme was that they were liberators of some group and that the Cuban government wanted the people to view Castro and the revolution as the liberators. Liberators from what remains unclear to me, but the US has been cast as the oppressors.
We walked through the city to La Guarida, one of the places recommended by friends of mine who had visited Havana over winter break. It turned out to be our most expensive meal but was completely worth it. The smoked marlin tacos were phenomenal although different than other tacos I’ve had. They were cold and small, perhaps no more than four inches long. We had orders of honey baked chicken, fried plantains, and chicken tikka. From there we had the afternoon open and continued exploring La Habana Vieja, We went to Cafe O’Reilly, a quiet bar on O’Reilly. We also tried to stop by O’Reilly 304 but it was completely packed. We found our way from there to El Dandy, a bar with an equal mix of tourists and locals. Just in time for a second dinner, we had the pulled pork tacos and pimieintos padrón – some kind of grilled or roasted peppers with large flakes of salt on them. Absolutely delicious (in fact, I’m going there after this for an afternoon snack). By chance we ran into Christian and Myklos there – they had run into Catholic friends of theirs and were eating in the next room.
We walked back to the ferry from there and stopped at a hotel by the port for a wifi check in. It was incredibly slow.
Day Three: Ambassador, Museo de la Revolucion
This was our most educational day of the trip.
We had a meeting scheduled with the “Chargé d’affaires ad interim” to Cuba from the United States, Jeffrey DeLaurentis. He has ambassadorial status but isn’t an official ambassador. He explained it as a way to show the seriousness of President Obama’s intentions toward Cuba without sending an actual ambassador.
The Embassy is in a building the United States built in the 50s on land leased from the Cuban government. When relations were suspended in the 60s, the building was occupied by Switzerland and the DR occupied the Cuban building on 16th Street in DC. When it was built, it faced a green plaza. During the 60s, the plaza was replaced with a venue specifically for demonstrations agains the US government. In the ambassador’s office, we could see the fastenings for a ticker type sign that ran around the building and displayed pro-American message. In response, the Cuban government built a sea of flag poles to block the display from being readable.
The ambassador told us about his two assignments to Cuba before the current one and his experiences at the UN. He explained quickly the history of Cuba and how he sees relations going from here. The comments were in confidence and off the record so I can’t say more than the topics he touched on.
At the end, I noticed a few lapel pins with the US and Cuban flags on them and asked if we could have some. They said they were out but happened to find a few as we were leaving and we each received one. What a trinket to return with to the US.
We walked across the plaza after leaving and found a small bicycle-themed cafe, Cafe Rueda. Occasionally in Cuba you can find extremely cheap and good food. Cafe Rueda was one of those places. We had three or four entrees for less than 10 CUCs (about $10 USD). Common here are small pizzas and sandwiches, which we ordered in addition to a number of egg dishes – fried, hardboiled, etc.
We walked quite a long way through Centro Habana before coming to the Universidad de la Habana and seeing the small campus with some beautiful buildings. Most captivating were the seven or eight large flights leading to the street from an open walkway.
We continued on, eventually making it to the Museo de la Revolucion (Museum of the Revolution). It was similar to the capitol in grandeur and disrepair. The three floor building held some sparse exhibits mainly focused on the story of the Castros and Che Guevara overthrowing the Batista dictatorship. It leveled many accusations against the US, mainly the CIA, for attempts at interfering with matters in Cuba. Conveniently left out was the Cuban Missile Crisis. One particularly striking paintings was of the “Cretins” – the dictator Batista, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and George W. Bush. W. was portrayed in a Nazi uniform. They weren’t subtle about their feelings at all.
We walked across the street to another recommendation – Ivan Chef Justo. We ordered what came with the recommendation – platas bravas and gazpacho. We also ordered the sangria which ended up being nearly half of the 65 CUC bill. The sangria was good but not worth that at all. Neither was the food.
We walked down toward Plaza del Cristo, the spot around our favorite spot – El Dandy. We discovered a place in the same square, La Familiar, with extremely cheap food. Entire plates of rice, beans, and shredded beef for 2.50 CUCs. I was skeptical but decided to give a chance later in the week.
Along the walk down, Brooks and Shelby had a young lady greet them enthusiastically and remembering them from customs. This became suspicious considering the language she used – “group” came in “Saturday or Sunday”. She talked to us for a while asking how the trip had been. We started seeing red flags when she tried getting us to go buy cigars at a friend’s house. This was a common technique the Cubans used on tourists. It would be a employee holiday, a national festival, or the like, and that would result in some special discount which we had to use today. It came for cigars and salsa lessons most frequently.
One particular interesting thing about this young lady was that she wouldn’t let her photo be taken and kept pointing to a thin red bracelet on her wrist when trying to explain it. She eventually said that her religion believes that if a photo is taken of you, it steals your soul, imprisoning it in this world. She Afrocubanism, but Google didn’t return results confirming this was a popular belief.
The group winnowed down to a few who stayed late and we went to a small bar with live music and bare walls with signatures from all over the world on it. A few were more uncouth than the rest.
Day Four: Hemingway’s hotel, late night out
Before departing for the day, Thomas, Brooks and I walked down with Lauren (our house coordinator) to exchange the remainder of our USD for CUCs. We found the house and entered a small living room with two elderly occupants in their 60s. They exchanged at a much better rate than the Codecas
Once we had crossed the bay, we set out on one of my missions – find a high quality panama hat. These are the straw kind that were classic in the 20s through 70s and are only regaining popularity now. I had asked a few tourists during the week where they had purchased theirs and even managed to ask a young waitress where the good ones were sold. All had pointed me in the direction of a market on the western side of the bay just south of where the ferry landed. We walked down and found a huge market of many vendors, including many who sold the type and brand I had admired. I tested a few and finally settled on a beautiful one. It was not the bleached white straw but a more natural color, but not too tan. It had a wide brim unlike the fedoras but a similar crown shape. It sat on my head in a different way than a ball cap would which took some adjusting but became quite comfortable and light after a few days of wear. I was expecting a more fragile hat but the salesperson confidently rolled the hat into a small packable size and unrolled it with ease. I decided it was a worthwhile purchase. It cost 30 CUCs.
We walked from there through Habana La Vieja to the hotel where Hemingway stayed when he visited Cuba. On the way we stay a gorgeous plaza and a statue of Christopher Columbus – credited with discovering Cuba.
The hotel had clearly overplayed its affiliation with Hemingway but the tourists didn’t seem to mind. Pictures (often repeated) of Hemingway lined the downstairs bar and lobby leading to a small elevator that transported us to the fifth floor where we toured the room he stayed in. In it, he finished three novels but none of the more popular ones. The entire experience was romantic and reminded me how much I need to finish reading through Hemingway’s books. I should start by re-reading The Old Man and the Sea.
The hotel had smartly added a rooftop bar where one could enjoy the same view Hemingway did and it was quiet popular with the tourist crowd. Importantly for our group it had very good Wi-Fi which we had not found yet. I uploaded a video that day to Instagram which was quite the feat.
We decided to walk down to El Dandy and La Familiar and stopped for street side churros along the way. The wait was long but well worth it. A cart with a large bowl for boiling oil was situated amongst a crowd of onlookers and patrons. The attendant had a dough mix that he would squeeze in circles into the bowl and with a long iron stick he would begin rotating it to form large loops of dough to cook together. We waited until our batch and walked the rest of the way sharing the churros. We should have ordered two.
We had lunch at La Familiar and walked from there to the cigar factory where we purchased cigars for later that night when we planned to go to a few bars with live music. The factory store was old and beautifully well worn but the building was falling apart around it. It was directly behind the capitol.
From there we visited a locally owned t-shirt store we had heard many people mention – Clanedestina. It was beautiful but low on stock (a good sign) and we spoke for a few minutes with the owner. It is a privately owned business, part of a growing contingent as Cuba starts allowing private business to run and operate.
One of the shots we wanted for the trip was a ride in a convertible taxi. We walked down to the capitol and caught one to take us down to the ferry port. We put into practice the negotiation techniques we’d learned throughout the week and talked our way down from 30 CUCs to 12. This is a significant amount still for 15 minutes of driving that we needed. We ended the afternoon with beers at the Hotel Armadores by the ferry.
Day Five: Free day
Today we didn’t have any activities planned. Our hostess had recommended a place for lunch in Regla, Eddie Chang’s, so after a slow morning we had lunch there. No one explained how a Chinese-Cuban restaurant ended up in Regla. I ordered the fajitas and was given the Cuban chicken fingers with sweet and sour sauce. I didn’t more than half of it.
Christian and Myklos went to meet some Catholic friends they knew and the rest of the group went to the beach. I decided to go into Havana and back to the hotel Hemingway had stayed at to sit at the rooftop bar and write. It’s a rare occurrence that I actually write down all the experiences of traveling and I wanted to be sure that I did on this trip. I spent a few hours there, enjoying the shade, the sunshine, and more than a few mojitos.
The rest of the day was spent walking to El Dandy to get another bowl of the roasted pimento peppers and walking through Plaza Vieja again before heading back to the apartment.
Day Six: Video shooting
In the morning, we shot recap interviews for the trip to capture each of our thoughts on Cuba and The Fellowship. Eddie Chang’s was visited again for lunch as the cameras charged. This time, I skipped the fajitas in favor of grilled pork. A unique drink was had there, a German-made drink called Hyper Malt. It’s a non-alcoholic malt drink rich in vitamins and nutrients. In small quantities it was delicious.
We walked that afternoon into Plaza Vieja for drinks and had street-side churros along the way, the first and only time we risked street food. It was absolutely delicious and worth it. We stopped again in La Familiar for cheap dinner. For the most part we had run out of cash and had to keep enough for the taxi to the airport the next day.
Day Seven: Flight home
Early this morning we took the ferry from Regla into Havana and caught a cab to the airport. In the dark, it was hard to see the road speed by under us. We were quiet most of the way as we looked at the broken infrastructure and natural beauty in the dim morning light. Cuba is changing and as we drove through the night I wondered what the future held for this country. I don’t know what Cuba will be like years from now but I do know that when I return it won’t be the same.
The program put together some videos together capturing our experience. (They aren’t paying me or asking me to put them here.)--- Follow @chriscottrell