As I watched a Godfather marathon on television recently, my eyes locked onto the Mercury Montclair Michael Corleone drove while he was in Havana. I thought of the cars I saw while I was there and wondered what the recent announcement that the government is planning to allow Cubans to buy and sell their cars and homes would mean.
Would Cubans exchange their iconic cars for much needed foreign currency? Would the government even allow them to?
In a CNN report, a Cuban is quoted as saying, “If these cars didn’t exist, not as many foreigners would come to Cuba to drive around in them and take pictures.” Fortunately, there is a lot more to Cuba than classic cars. Seeing them, seeing the old buildings – one other thing Cuba’s famous for – made me feel as if I’d stepped back in time.
When I was going to Cuba, one of my friends told me she’d love to be able to own one of the cars. I took this photo for her. At the time, I didn’t even consider that it might have been illegal to sell them.
Quite a lot of the cars I saw were in pretty good condition considering they were 50-plus years old. There were, of course, some pretty banged up ones as well but for some reason, my photos of those didn’t come out very well.
We noticed that quite a number of the cars were being operated as taxis. It’s quite inexpensive to take one, about $20-25 and tour the city. They’re big and roomy and can fit up to 6 people (depending on their sizes).
This is my submission to this week’s Budget Travelers Sandbox Travel Photo Thursday series. Be sure to check out other photo and story entries on their website!
There are so many places I’d like to visit that I get overwhelmed when I try to choose. Each place has something that appeals to me.
For example, although I’m not a good swimmer, I love water and places that have beautiful beaches call me. I discovered recently that I also love the mountains. Mountains capture my imagination and give me a sense of peace so any place that has both makes me happy.
I’ve always felt that I was born in the wrong era and the wrong place. I love looking at old buildings and visiting quaint villages that take me back in time. I’m also in awe of old stone monuments, Gothic cathedrals and the ruins of ancient civilizations.
I love a good cocktail, especially one with a rum base.
So when I knew I was going to Havana, I was as excited about going as I was about all the rummy cocktails I knew I’d get to drink.
Cuba is, after all, rum country. It’s also home of the mojito, the daiquiri and the Cuba Libre – all made with rum and lime juice, my other favorite ingredient.
But it was the mojito, the perfect refreshing antidote to hot days, that looked forward to downing.
Unfortunately, my first Havana mojito sucked!
And it wasn’t just that it needed more sugar. We tried that and it still tasted ‘off.’
So did the next one at the second bar.
The mojitos I’ve had in New York and elsewhere – the taste I’ve come to love – are a delicate balance between rum, sugar, mint, lime juice and ice. Even allowing for slight variations in the taste of the ingredients and the quantity of each that was used, I couldn’t explain the big difference in taste between Havana’s mojitos and New York’s.
I was disappointed.
I just knew the mojitos in Havana would have been good, so good, I’d be drinking them instead of water. And I knew I’d be raving about them when I returned home. I just knew!
Instead, I found myself doing what I do when I’m out and can’t find my favorite brand of spirits, I revert to something that’s foolproof: in this case, rum and coke.
(Yes, even though Cuba has its own brand of cola, this American import is available, especially in tourist areas.)
Now, there’s really nothing wrong with my backup drink: rum and Coke or the rum, Coke and lime mix called Cuba Libre. But since my taste buds had been primed for weeks in anticipation of the mojito, it felt like a poor substitute.
Several days later, while we were having lunch in a hotel restaurant, I noticed something that to me explained why the mojitos tasted so different.
There, on the bar, were rows of glasses. Each had sugar, lime wedges and several sprigs of mint leaves. How long had they been sitting there, waiting?
Could this slow marinating of these two ingredients account for the difference in taste?
Even from where I sat, I could see that the mint leaves had wilted to a deep green and a brownish yellow was slowly overtaking the vibrant green of the wedges of lime.
I watched as a waiter walked over, picked up a glass, added rum and ice, muddled the ingredients and served it to a diner.
I’m not a purist. Neither am I one of those people who thinks food has to taste the same everywhere, you know, like McDonald’s?
But you cannot convince me that that wasn’t the reason for the difference.
Cuba‘s well-known for, among other things, its architecture. However, after 50 years of neglect, many of its now historic buildings are falling apart. Many others struggle to retain their majestic beauty.
I can only imagine how splendid these buildings looked back then.
We should have stopped at La Floridita for a daiquiri, but didn’t.
Previously supporters of the revolution, the Bacardi family left Cuba rather than let the regime nationalize their business. Bacardi is now headquartered in Bermuda.
A few people have asked me why I went to Cuba. In case you’re one of them, here’s why.
To me, Cuba is like the neighbor behind a wall that you hear but you can’t see.
In Western Jamaica, where I grew up, from very early on, I could hear Cuba from my house through the sometimes faint, sometimes clear sounds of music and voices in a language I didn’t then understand. Over the years, I created my own narrative of the place adults talked about in sometimes panicked, sometimes hushed tones.
I wondered about the people, who it was explained to me, could not leave. I tried to imagine what it would be like not being able to leave or do whatever pleased me.
The image I had, even at that age, was of being trapped, being imprisoned. No, no one wanted that.
Cuba was the Caribbean’s bogeyman – there was always the fear that what happened there could also happen in Jamaica. And many Jamaicans were, understandably, concerned.
Then as I grew older, stories began to come out. Stories told by my mother of two aunts – sisters of her father’s, my grandfather – who went to Cuba, married and never returned.
l also found out that another grand-aunt, this time on my father’s side never returned either.
Between 1916 and 1940, it is estimated that approximately 300,000 Jamaicans went to Cuba in search of work. No one knows how many returned despite being allowed to following the revolution.
My paternal grandfather did. As did my godfather and a family friend – all spicing their Jamaican English with Spanish words and speaking Spanish among themselves – clear signs to everyone else that they had been “a foreign.”
Some of those words became so commonplace, they became part of the lexicon. I didn’t realize until I started learning Spanish in high school that these words were.
My fascination with Cuba never waned – blame that privacy fence, the closedoffness of it. And with family connections, it isn’t a place I could put out of my mind easily, despite all that I learned from my Cuban friends.
When I decided to visit, I told each of them in turn. Not one objected.
My family wanted me to look up the ones who never returned.
But, in the end, I went for me.
Fifty years of repression have not dampened the spirit of the Cuban people. The country hasn’t lost its grandeur, its style or its flare. And I’d go back tomorrow. Because now I have my own images to match the narrative of my childhood.
If you’ve been reading my posts about Cuba and would like to travel to that country, there are a few
things to keep in mind.
Despite the Obama Administration’s recent announcement of further relaxation of the ban on U.S. citizens spending money in Cuba and expanding the number of airports that offer direct flights there, Americans still need special permission from the Office of Foreign Asset Control to enter Cuba.
But if you can’t wait, here’s what you need to know before you go.
Getting There: Fly to another country (Canada, Mexico, Bahamas, Jamaica, etc.) and get a flight to Cuba. I flew first to Jamaica, purchased my ticket (I had made a reservation beforehand but I don’t think the price would have been different) and left for Havana the next day.
Visas: You’ll need a visa to enter Cuba. Not to worry, it can be purchased from the airline or on arrival. It costs about $30. Your passport will not be stamped.
Accommodation: There are several companies online that will book your accommodation, whether you’re looking for a hotel or a casa particular (B&B). I used Cuba Accommodation.
While you’re there: Since U.S. issued credit cards are not accepted for use in Cuba, cash is your best option. Unfortunately, U.S. dollars carry a 10% service charge when you change them for Cuban Convertible Dollars (CUCs) so that $100 will be only worth $90. I brought mostly Canadian dollars but I could have brought UK pound or Euros. I did have some U.S. as backup, which I changed eventually. You can change funds at the airport, banks and Cadecas (exchange bureaus).
We used CUCs for most of the things we bought – from souvenirs to food. But if you plan to take the bus, for example, you’ll need pesos, the currency Cubans use.
If, at the end of your trip, you have CUCs remaining, you can change them back.
Departure tax: Speaking of leaving, you will be required to pay US$25 departure tax. No exceptions.
Transportation: Cuba has a good system of transportation including road, rail, air, buses and taxis making it pretty easy to get around.
Cuban Food: I wasn’t very impressed with the food we got at some of the restaurants but what we had at paladars, those small, family-run eateries, was exceptional.
Cuban Art: If you buy art while on your trip, you’ll need to get a license from the Registro Nactional de Bienes Culturales to take it out of the country. The license costs 10 CUCs for 1-5 pieces from the same artist. If you don’t get the license from the Registro, you can get it from a Registro Specialist at the airport but it will cost you more – 7 CUCs per. Without a license, you will not be allowed to leave with your purchases.
Cell phones: Your U.S. cell phones won’t work in Cuba and calling out can be pretty expensive, about $3/minute. If you really need to call home, head for a major hotel.
Email: If you need to send emails, go to a major hotel and, for a fee, you can send emails or surf the Internet. You’ll need to bring your passport for identification.
Cigars and Rum: Don’t forget Cuban cigars and rum are not allowed into the U.S., so enjoy them while you’re there. Also, make sure if you purchased anything that’s stamped or tagged Made in Cuba (Hecho en Cuba) that, if possible, you remove the tag. That would be a dead giveaway to U.S. Customs.
Bear in mind, Cuba is a Communist country and almost all activity by its citizens and visitors is monitored.
When we arrived at the airport, we had to let the immigration know exactly where we would be staying and a few days later, someone did come to the casa particular to check that we were there. Cubans aren’t allowed to have American visitors in their homes.
Neighborhood watch groups (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution) which were set up to keep watch and report on any internal and external threats to the revolution, still patrol neighborhoods to sniff out illegal activities – whether criminal or political.
Used to being connected 24/7 in the States, my first day was an adjustment but it was great to disconnect and focus on being on vacation and enjoying all that Cuba has to offer. And there’s a lot. We spent a week in Havana only and there was still a lot we hadn’t seen.
If you remember these things, you’ll have few surprises when you get to Cuba.
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More than anything else, meeting local people who are warm and friendly is what I remember most when I travel. To increase my chances of interacting with locals, I prefer to stay in smaller hotels, guesthouses, Bed & Breakfasts, and when possible, with families.
So when my friend, Lett and I decided to visit Havana, there was no question where we’d stay – we chose a B&B or casa particular.
The casa particular we ended up staying at was not the one we booked initially but we wouldn’t have met the wonderful family who embraced us and with whom we now stay in touch.
And if we didn’t walk almost everywhere, we wouldn’t meet the Cubans we encountered while out and about. Some left quite an impression.
People like Reina.
Reina greeted me as if I were a long lost friend. And from what she said, I realized she thought I was someone she had worked with years before. I started to tell her she was mistaken but she kept on talking. She realized her mistake only when I switched to English and told her I was Jamaican.
Jamaica!, she repeated and without missing a beat, invited Lett and me to a reception that was being given in honor of the visiting Barbadian Prime Minister at the Caribbean Center that evening. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend. But I’ve not forgotten her generosity.
Alex is a member of one of the bands that plays at the Hotel Inglaterra where we spent a few afternoons listening to music and drinking Cuba Libres. We chatted with the musicians after one of their sets and Alex offered to show us around. It was our last day in Havana and a slight drizzle fell quietly on the morning. But Alex arrived exactly at the time he promised he would. We took the bus to Old Havana (Habana Vieja) and he showed us several places we had missed, then accompanied us back to the casa particular.
Then there was Minia.
Lett and I had gone to the Hotel Nacional to use one of their computers. As we were leaving, an employee approached and asked, in halting English, if we were Jamaicans. A smile of relief spread across her face when I responded that I was. So were both her grandparents, she gushed.
I should not have been surprised to meet someone of Jamaican heritage but I was. Long before migration north became the dream of most Jamaicans and other Caribbean people, Cuba was the place to go. It is estimated that between 1916 and 1940, nearly 300,000 Jamaicans migrated there in search of work in the sugar industry. Relatives of mine on both sides, including my paternal grandfather, went as well. However, only my grandfather returned.
Before I left for Cuba, one of my father’s sisters urged me to try to find an aunt who had never returned. But with only an old address and just a week in Havana, I knew the odds of finding her were slim – I didn’t even try.
I didn’t count on finding Minia or on being busted as a Jamaican — not that I was hiding. I have a pretty normal face, with African features, that equal numbers of Ghanian and Nigerian friends have claimed could be from their respective ethnic groups. But I wonder if there were some characteristics typical of Jamaicans that telegraphed to Minia our real identity.
I have to admit, she could well be a distant relative – her grandparents are from the same area in Jamaica as my maternal grandparents – I’ve yet to trace our genealogy. But for someone whom I met only briefly, I feel an inexplicably strong connection. So I’m glad that she busted me in Havana.