Monday, August 31, 2009

Cuba, Part 2

Danielle and I decided to go to Cuba.

The risk involved did not deter our enthusiasm for the idea.

This was going to be my first trip outside the continental United States. I'd never even owned a passport, before. Hell of a first trip, I thought to myself.

I did a couple of days of thorough research with the goal of keeping us from going to jail or being charged a $10,000 fine by the U.S. government. My research showed that ignoring the embargo occasionally had its serious consequences.

This made Cuba even more alluring. After all...tons of Americans had been to the Paris and seen the Eiffel Tower, but CUBA?! that's an adventure!

I discovered that there were three "gateway cities" used by American citizens as pit stops on the way to Havana. They were: Montreal, Mexico City, and Cancun. The most popular of the three seemed to be Cancun so I chose that one. It was Spring Break, so we'd just blend in know...assuming we were being followed by the C.I.A.

Once we got to Cancun, I would do two important things:

1. I'd get twenty to thirty dollars worth of Mexican pesos, and tuck it into the guide book in case we had to bribe anyone on the way back.

2. I'd buy our roundtrip tickets from Cancun to Havana, in cash. No sense leaving a paper trail within the first six hours!

Danielle and I spent the next week sneaking up on each other, intermittently, and yelling, "CUBA!!!" The excitement about the trip grew, exponentially, with each passing day.

I bought a Lonely Planet guidebook on Cuba and read it, cover to cover. The preface to the book was funny...I'll paraphrase it: "We here at Lonely Planet are in no position, legally, to advise you to break U.S. law by traveling to Cuba. However, and this is very don't want to be a wuss, do you? DO IT, DO IT!!!"

I learned some interesting things from the Lonely Planet Cuba:

1. Many people in Havana (and elsewhere in Cuba) turned their homes into makeshift bed and breakfasts, called Casa Paticulares. This was a more interesting choice than a hotel, as you got to be part of someone's family for a short period of time, practice your Spanish, and pay $20 to $30 dollars, per night, for food and lodging. Not bad. Cuba was very cheap, if done this way. Hotels, on the other hand, usually started at around $70 to $80 U.S. dollars per night.

2. There were three operating currencies in Cuba: 1. The Cuban peso 2. The U.S. dollar and 3. Something called CUC's, or, Cuban convertibles, (which had a 1 to 1 relationship with the U.S. dollar), and was the predominant currency used by tourists. I was warned by the guidebook not to exchange any currency on the street, and to always do it at the bank. One of the reasons for this was the fact that currency exchange booths on the street would often try to take advantage of tourists' lack of knowledge and give you Cuban pesos in exchange for U.S. dollars which were worth far less than Cuban Convertibles or CUCs. In addition, it was nearly impossible for a non-Cuban to spend Cuban pesos at all! Therefore you had to brave the bank every time you needed an exchange, which I was warned could take half a day. Apparently, the banking system in Cuba had an entirely different sense of time than American banks, and a simple deposit of funds could be used as an opportunity to socialize for quite some time.

3. It could not be emphasized enough: if you lost your cash while in Cuba, you would be completely unable to obtain any funds or credit, so it was imperative to mind your belongings at all times. Keeping your passport in your front pocket wouldn't be a bad idea, either.

4. Do not, under any circumstances, drink the tap water.

5. Most hotels took U.S. dollars, so you probably wouldn't have to worry about converting your money immediately upon landing in Havana. far, so good.

We got everything ready in the week leading up to our departure date, and before we knew it, we were leaving for the airport.

Danielle and I took a flight to Houston, had an hour layover, and landed in Cancun.

As planned, we got our thirty dollars worth of Mexican pesos at the airport in Cancun, and headed over to the surprisingly small Cubana Airlines booth to purchase our plane tickets.

I approached the friendly looking Mexican lady at the counter.

"I'd like to buy two round trip tickets to Havana, please. The soonest flight you have."

I looked at the board above her.

The next flight was supposed to arrive in two hours.

"Yes sir...that flight is scheduled to arrive at 6pm. But just be aware that it may be very late. How would you like to pay?" she asked, pleasantly, as if the fact that the flight might be very late was of absolutely no consequence whatsoever.

"Cash. Why do you think it could be very late?" I probed, looking back at Danielle to see if she had heard.

"It's a Cuban plane, sir. Sometimes they arrive on time, and sometimes they arrive whenever they feel like it," she laughed.

Wow. Picture someone at American Airlines saying something like that!


"Yes, really. That will be $360.00."

"That's hilarious!" I said to Danielle, pulling out the cash, and noticing that she was highly amused by the warning as well. It didn't bother her. We were on vacation after all! Why stress about anything?

'We'd better settle into the airport bar,' I thought to myself. I got the impression from her statement that clocks might not even exist in Cuba.



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