Okay, I know I've kept you all waiting long enough and I appreciate your patience. I will have you know that I originally planned to do a VLOG for this entry but I decided to write about it instead. I figured it would have much more substance... along with saving me editorial time, ha! I also got sick upon my return to Cuba, and I'm recently recovering from a non-related illness this past week. Bare with the kid!
I've gotten a bunch of questions, comments and concerns regarding my travels to Cuba last month. From June 30th to July 6th, I roamed the streets of Havana on a cultural quest with no specific destination. In this post, I'm going to try to cover as much information as possible with hopes of helping those that may be interested in traveling to Cuba in the future. Brace yourselves, this was an extremely interesting trip!
When I first revealed that I would be traveling to Cuba, many people were concerned that I would be traveling solo. This was not the case. I traveled to Havana with a close friend/soror of mine, Amber who currently resides in New York. We scheduled our flights around the same time so we made great timing after going through customs, etc. The process for travelling to Cuba was surprisingly very simple. I booked my flight through a U.S. airline and part of the booking process required for me to select one of 12 reasons for travel. I selected People-to-People Exchange/Education. However, since I booked my flight back in February, the regulations have changed.
On June 16, 2017, Trump announced his plan to reverse the travel policy passed by President Obama that will limit travel and business with Cuba. According to various news articles, the new travel policy will prevent people from selecting the People-to-People Exchange option as a reason to travel solo to Cuba. I also read that the Education option will still be available only to people who book educational excursions through U.S. based companies. Luckily, this new policy did not affect our travel plans since we booked our trip in advance. If you are thinking about traveling to Cuba, I encourage you to read up on the new travel policies before booking your trip. Once I booked my trip, I had to purchase a Tourist Visa for $50.00 after signing my affidavit reinstating my reason for travel. This didn't take place until after I landed in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida just before my connecting flight to Havana. Oh! And don't forget your passport. If you don't have a valid passport, you will need one before you even think about traveling outside of the U.S.
Upon arrival, we caught a taxi from the airport to our housing destination. This is the part where I will add that yes, Cuba is fairly inexpensive but you will spend majority of your money on taxi's and excursions to other parts of the island. I only cleared approximately $600 during my stay and that included my housing, taxi, food/drinks, souvenirs and activities. I recommend bringing anywhere from $650-$700 just to be safe. You shouldn't spend over $1,000 if you are traveling solo and doing it right. We stayed with a close friend of Amber's aunt (who is originally from Cuba). I had the pleasure of staying in a huge villa in Plaza de la Revolución with a Cuban family of 5; Mama Maria, Papa Rahul (who affectionately adopted us as their great nieces), Jenny (our primary host), Orlando (Jenny's husband), and Fabian (Jenny and Orlando's 13 year old son). Trust me when I say, there was more than enough space for all of us to thrive.
The villa consisted of 6-7 bedrooms (all with their own private bathrooms), an open kitchen and dining area, a large back patio/deck, two open living room areas and a second level that we didn't get a chance to explore. The villa was polished with beautiful furniture, massive doors and flooring. Amber and I shared a room that was a beautiful loft style unit with two beds. Breakfast was cooked for us every morning which consisted of eggs with cheese, Cuban pound cake (which is really good) fresh fruits, fresh fruit juice and toast. Everyday at breakfast, we took our journals to the table and asked a ton of questions related to things that we experienced, were unsure of or were just curious about. Most of the time, we spent speaking with Jenny who knows only a little English. Luckily, both Amber and I speak Spanish well enough to carry on conversation. She shared some pretty cool and interesting facts with us about Cuban lifestyle and her family. Some of things that Jenny shared with us included:
1. College and Healthcare is Free in Cuba.
2. You cannot own a home in Cuba unless you are Cuban.
3. Jenny has a Master's Degree in Microbiology yet her salary was only $20 CUC a month when she had a job in her field. $20 CUC is equivalent to $20 USD.
4. Groceries are rationed among families and many local natives make their own groceries such as cheese and bread.
5. Jenny and her entire family shared 1 bedroom within the entire villa because she explained that they "want the money" from renting their home to other tourists.
6. Toilet Paper is very expensive to retrieve on the island, which is why many businesses and restaurants don't have any.
7. There is only one political party in Cuba.
8. Cuba is a very safe place despite some speculation.
9. Cubans love President Obama.
10. When Cubans say "Happy Holiday" they are actually wishing you a well vacation.
11. If you are a government official, musician, or someone of importance in the community, the government will pay for your housing.
If I could describe Havana, Cuba in comparison to places in the U.S., I would say that Havana is the perfect mix between New York and New Orleans. You get the architecture and similar visuals of New Orleans with the fast-paced, crowded lifestyle of New York. I spent a lot of time journaling and asking questions about Cuban history, food and culture. I learned a ton a new information from experience such as the fact that Cubans don't typically indulge in spicy or complex food. Most of the food that we came across on the island consisted of very simple ingredients. Some places were very good, while other places I wish we would've passed up. Below are my Top 4 food places in Havana.. use these suggestions wisely and don't get caught slippin' like we did the first couple of days:
1. Kilometro Zero
2. El Figaro
3. Don Pepe
4. Los Nardos
There were quite a few culturally different/surprising things that we came across in Cuba. Some of these things allowed us to form a greater perspective on the topics of race, religion, technology, health and overall culture. Some of the things we came across were:
1. No Free Access to Wi-Fi: Jenny told us that it is extremely expensive to have Wi-Fi in Cuba which is why we were unable to reach a secure Wi-Fi connection in the area. We had to walk about 20 minutes to reach a local bodega where they offered a hotspot connection for a small fee but when we returned a second time to use the connection, we were unable to get Wi-Fi because the guy was not on property until after 8pm. Super inconvenient. However, we did find out that within another 25 minute walk to the tourist area (near El Capitolio) we would be able to find a secure Wi-Fi connection for $5 CUC (or $5.00 USD) but... for only 1 hour of Wi-Fi. Once the 1 hour ran out, we had to purchase another card to connect to the internet. Needless to say, we spent the majority of the trip without consistent phone/internet service.
2. Smoking: We noticed that many Cuban natives smoke. If we would've actually counted, we probably would've averaged at about 20 people a day that we saw smoking cigarettes and/or cigars (many of which appeared to be young teenagers). The high volume of smokers in Havana alone made us wonder whether they had health regulations, age restrictions or a surgeon general. We never got down to the bottom of that though.
3. Piercings & Hair Color: Seems like everyone, even the young children, had piercings and hair color. I met a little boy who looked no older than 10 years old with a side labret piercing and hair color. When Amber asked him why he had the piercing, he responded "For fashion". So I suppose these are two very big components of fashion and style in Cuba.
4. Young children that appear to have no curfew: Depending on what area you are in, you will see many young teens and children out at what we consider late times. I'm not sure why this is but according to Papa Rahul, it is considered the norm. It was something for us to think about.
5. Not many people speak English: Brace yourselves. If you are thinking about travelling to Cuba, it is best that you brush up on your Spanish or travel with someone who knows Spanish. Unfortunately, you will not come across many people who speak fluent English in Cuba and this may cause a great deal of miscommunication. Nonetheless, the natives are very nice and helpful if you explain that you don't speak Spanish.
6. Don't be alarmed, they may think you're Cuban: After about 3 days of being approached by natives initiating general conversation, we noticed that we actually blended right in with the people of Cuba. There are plenty of women who look just like us with natural hair, curves and sun-kissed skin. Often times we were unsure of how to identify a native from a tourist in that aspect.
7. Very aggressive men: While you will meet aggressive men wherever you go, Cuban men have no problem with expressing their love and interest for you. Just a heads up, you may have plenty of men grab your hand and hit you with that Cuban game.
8. You will see more white babydolls than black: This was very interesting to Amber and I. I don't recall seeing one black doll on the shelves of any local store or shopping mall in Havana.
9. Virtually no churches: Over the course of our trip, we met an exceptional guy named Elijah that turned out to be a great friend. Elijah also happened to be a History Teacher in Phoenix, AZ and a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. He was very knowledgeable of the area and shared a vast amount of knowledge with us about Cuban culture... oh! Elijah also spoke fluent Spanish so he was a great addition to our pack. Anywho, Elijah pointed out to us that there are virtually no churches in Cuba and after he made this statement, we realized that we had only saw one old cathedral over the course of our visit. This is because a large majority of Cuban natives are either Atheist or practice the native African religions including, Santería. I do encourage you to read up on religion in Cuba as there is an in-depth history behind the religious structure and practices in Cuba.
10. Government Assigned Dogs: Throughout the tourist district of Havana, we came across quite a few stray cats and dogs. Some of which we could tell were strays while some of the dogs carried signs around their neck. We came across a very popular Dalmatian who had one of these signs. His name? OJ. Haha! A waiter at a local restaurant explained to us that the dogs with signs are dogs that are assigned to people by the government. He told us that these dogs have families and they are well taken care of. He didn't explain the process of how the dogs are assigned or the stipulations of their care but he did share that they also receive free health care.
11. Incredible Art & Expression: The Art that you will find in Cuba is mind-blowing! I met quite a few artists who were Cuban natives, one of which is a realism artist with his own studio in Havana. It was very surprising to meet an artist and listen to his perspective on politics and how he uses his craft to transform his ideas into art. I did not get images of his pieces but the best way I can describe his work is incredible. You will find beautiful art on every corner in Havana. Be sure to take a swing by The Museum of Cuban Art. This was easily one of my top 5 favorite places to visit in Havana.
12. Bathroom Culture: So... as mentioned earlier in this post, many places do not have tissue because it is expensive to retrieve on the island. This is very out of the norm for many of us and as you can imagine, it was a bit of a culture shock. Our host had plenty of tissue for us and we carried a roll with us everywhere we went but even after we used the tissue, we were asked to refrain from flushing it down the toilet. In Cuba, it is believed that tissue is bad for the septic systems so we would have to throw our tissue in the trash can after use. Another thing we noticed is that many places do not have toilet seats. We never got down to the bottom of the reasoning behind this. Last thing I will share is that many of the bathrooms are not very welcoming. Amber and I actually had a very interesting experience with using a local bathroom. I won't go into detail but just know it involved a caved in ceiling, a toilet with no seat or ability to flush, an extremely small space with no sink... and coach roaches. :)
13. Taxi Scams & Money: One thing I did not like about Cuba is that you get nickled and dimed on everything. Many restaurants will list their prices as one thing and attempt to charge you more than the price listed with some kind of bizarre explanation. Taxi scams are very common as well. I was told by a local taxi driver one price and when I arrived at my destination, he attempted to charge me double what he originally said. Beware of these types of scams that can not only happen in Cuba but other places as well, especially if there is a language barrier.
HEALTH & SAFETY TIPS
1. Beware of the trash: There is a boatload of trash covering the streets of Havana. They do however have trashmen that work everyday to keep the streets clean and surprisingly, there are little to no mice/rats. I'm going to assume this is because of the high volume of stray cats that roam the streets.
2. Car fumes: The vintage cars there are very real and the exhaust and heat makes the air very thick in Cuba. If you have asthma or struggle with breathing in general, you want to bring all of your tools to Cuba. Otherwise, it will be extremely difficult and tiring for you to adapt.
3. Bring Hand Sanitizer AND Tissue: As previously mentioned, there are many many places with no tissue (or toilet seats) in Havana. Take the initiative to bring your own tissue and hand sanitizer. Shoutout to the Soror in Terminal 1913 that reminded me of this!
4. Don't leave your belongings: Just like any foreign place (and even in your own city) do not leave your things unattended. You can end up being targeted for theft. Robbery is not very common in Cuba, but pick-pocketing and petty theft is an issue everywhere.
5. Virtually no signs that say "Employees Must Wash Hands": And take this how you want to take it. I'm just being honest of the fact that we did not come across 1 sign that said this.
Overall, I truly enjoyed my experience in Cuba and I would go again. However, if I were to travel to Cuba once more, I would travel to other parts of the island. Unless you enjoy the fast pace, busy culture of New York, I recommend making Havana a 1-2 day stop on your travel to Cuba. Find other places on the island to explore and experience.
Check out my photos from my stay and be sure to subscribe and drop me a line if you have further questions regarding my experience. As always stay SWEET.