The mural of a handsome Che Guevarra greets us at the Plaza de la Revolucion, with the inscription “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” (“Until victory, always”). Everywhere there were photos, murals, paintings, slogans, etc. celebrating Cuba’s victory in the revolution. However, as I began to explore Havana, I wondered what the revolution really achieved, at least for the common Cuban. The city was depressed. Poverty was ubiquitous. And the future was not hopeful.
Despite the negative situation, Cubans went about their daily activities with a positive outlook. In most restaurants and cafes, and even in small convenience stores, there was either a live band or a speaker hooked to an iPhone playing salsa music. Cubans were always quick to gyrate to the sexy beat of Latin music.
Tourism is a big industry in Cuba. Travelers from around the world pump hard currency direct to the economy. In Havana, Cubans are used to the presence of tourists. They come in various shapes, forms and sizes. Despite the boom in tourism, it was disappointing to note that very few Cubans spoke English, or at least attempted to. I noticed that most of the TV channels and radio shows were in Spanish, so it didn’t come as a surprise that there is a huge communication barrier for tourists who don’t speak Spanish.
My friend Ronaldo and I capitalized on the fact that a lot of words in our mother tongue, Filipino, contained Spanish words so we used those words to attempt communication with the locals. When words failed, signing also helped. We only met a couple of Cubans who spoke good English – one was a salesman in a souvenir shop and another was a tour guide. Even my Spanish translator app on my iPhone was useless there. When you are communicating it is a nuisance to be searching the app for the idea you can’t translate to Spanish. I wish they’d invent an app where I record my message in English and play it back in Spanish. That would really be convenient.
The scenery was nostalgic – it felt like the city was trapped in time in the 50’s and 60’s – and the presence of vintage vehicles in the Central Park, used as taxis, authenticated the feeling of being in a time warp.
I imagined women in their Maria Clara outfits and men in their suits, smoking cigars while walking the streets of downtown Havana. But instead what you see is a contrast of men and women, Cubans and tourists, wearing colourful shorts and sleeveless shirts, with young Cuban men sporting David Beckham’s H&M commercial hairdo.
There were a lot of hustlers and panhandlers in downtown Havana, especially at Central Park. This was the part of my vacation that was annoying and upsetting. Locals who did this wanted a quick buck from an unsuspecting or gullible tourist. The scams run the gamut from a woman with a child to an old man being pushed in a decrepit wheel chair. All of them were asking money for food. The worst were the able-bodied drunks who had empty liquor bottles in their hands, breath that reeked of alcohol, who tried to scam you with money so they can get more booze. Those who approached you on the street had different stories and strategies but the same goal in mind – to earn a quick and easy buck.
Cuba has two currencies – the Cuban Convertible Peso or CUC, which tourists use, and the Cuban Peso (CUP), which locals use. The CUC converts to 1:1 against the US dollar. As a tourist, it is seldom that you have to deal with the CUP. When you buy in the local shops and pay with CUC, you can ask them to give you change in CUC so you don’t have to bother converting currencies. One CUC is 25 CUP so it can be cumbersome dealing with two currencies.
Food was a disappointment. Obviously, McDonald’s and KFC don’t operate in Cuba. Although I’ve known about this during my research pre-trip, it was still disappointing to find the limited food choices in Havana. Being a foodie, I wanted to indulge while on vacation. The best we had were steaks but even those don’t compare to the ones we enjoy in North America.
Until we discovered Chinatown.
Thanks to my friend Ronaldo who managed to introduce himself to a Chinese national named Terry, who was in Havana on a work-study program from his employer in China. We were looking for the souvenir shop near the Yara Cinema and couldn’t find it and Ronaldo asked Terry for help. We found the souvenir shop and asked Terry for a recommendation to a good restaurant. Terry gladly showed us Chinatown! This was on our fourth day in Havana, and to me, Chinatown was like an oasis in the desert. We feasted on delicious Chinese food and we kept coming back until we left Havana. The place was just fifteen minutes from our hotel but it was out of the usual path we took when strolling. Morale of the story: when pressed for good food, look for Chinatown!
Terry also taught us to haggle. During our first two days we didn’t really care much. Whenever we went to Central Park, there were all sorts of hustlers offering taxi rides to wherever you wanted to go. The standard rate was 5 CUC. We found out later that we were being scammed because most of the places we wanted to go to only cost 2 CUC and not 5. Thanks to Terry we started haggling with taxi drivers. Rarely did they ever turn down a 2 CUC fare because there will be three or four drivers who would grab the opportunity. Supply of taxis overwhelmed demand so this was good for tourists.
We felt safe the whole time. There was a visible police presence in the tourist areas. They are smart to protect the tourists, who bring in money to their economy. One unfortunate incident involving tourist safety can have adverse consequences to their economy. Common sense will go a long way as in any country you visit. Keep your valuables hidden. Don’t stray in dark streets especially late in the evenings.
Smile and be polite but also be firm with the hustlers and panhandlers. Hola was a good icebreaker. Gracias and por favor were also handy.
There weren’t a lot of places to shop and even the few malls in downtown Havana had very little items on display. There are souvenir shops but you need to haggle there too as the prices are sometimes unreasonable. I wanted to buy an apron to use here in Toronto. There was a Havana Club branded apron that was selling for 10 CUC. I could go to a Dollar Store in Toronto and probably get an apron for two dollars. I did buy a Che Guevarra t-shirt, though.
Havana was a great experience! It was unhurried and relaxed. Great for those vacations when you don’t really want to do anything. Will I go back? This is the debate I continue to have with Ronaldo. Probably not. I have a limited travel budget and there are so many other countries on my bucket list, so instead of spending money on a return trip to Havana, I might as well use it to go to Athens. But then again, Ronaldo may convince me to go back to Havana. We’ll see.
Back in Toronto, as I put my Che Guevarra fridge magnet in my refrigerator, I thought of the warm and friendly Cuban people I met during my trip. I remembered the salsa music. And the taste of a cold mojito on a warm, sunny day. At Central Park in Havana, tourists and panhandlers go about their daily business. It’s another beautiful day in Havana. Viva la Revolucion!