The most ignorant traveller to ever arrive in Cuba. And how she survived.
Sometimes I swear there is a guardian angel looking out for me. I have to believe someone is because how I managed to survive my completely unplanned trip to Cuba is beyond me at this point. My first stint actually travelling totally solo since I started travelling some 8 months ago I had made some extremely naïve assumptions about this country, of which I essentially knew nothing. Carrying in my box of tricks was the knowledge that there is some sort of a situation with the USA and I won’t be seeing many American tourists on my travels. Seemed simple enough in my mind. How much more could I possibly need to know right? Wrong.
My first inkling Cuba isn’t the most typical of countries was when the overweight America gentleman sat next to me on the flight started to give me some ‘survival’ tips for my stay. Having been visiting for some 40 years, he seemed to have a slight edge on my very basic Cuban knowledge. This was where the unravelling of my many incorrect assumptions began. He started easy on me … “So basically there are next to no hostels or internet” at which point I seriously considered getting off the plane mid-flight. I use the internet for everything. I cannot begin to imagine how anyone once travelled without the ease of the internet. The internet or more specifically Google is the only skill I have. If I can’t ask Google, how on earth do I find an answer?? I could feel my stress levels start to rise as the conversation continued into the two different currencies, lack of ATM’s and general lack of progression since the 1950’s.
Problem numero uno, I had very stupidly not booked or even really looked into any accommodation. Though at that very early stage I was more concerned about the fact that it took two hours for the bags to be transferred to baggage reclaim. A whole flight of people stood for two hours as a bag or two would trickle through every ten minutes. Some very kind New Zealand girls informed me that it generally takes a long time as they go through your bags looking for cosmetics and personal care products to steal. By this point the idea of finding accommodation in such a place, late at night, completely on my own without the first clue as to the cities layout was producing feelings of genuine anxiety. I mean, I consider myself well-travelled and feel I can manage most situations but this was proving to be far more complicated than I could have anticipated. My first angel act was when I was hailed over by the Argentinian guy who checked-in to the flight in front of me in Mexico wanting to share a cab. But better still he had also met a lovely Italian woman who had managed to book one of the few hostels in Havana prior to arrival providing me with a very welcomed opportunity of accommodation. As I drove through the dark streets of Havana I felt a wash of relief come over me that I had met these two travelers. The streets were full of gangs of people loitering, the buildings dilapidated and nothing close to signage anywhere. There is no way I would have ever found some accommodation on my own, let alone with my broken Spanish. I later learnt that typical accommodation is to stay with a host family in a casa and these are marked by a little blue anchor above the door. Information I probably should have researched prior to my arrival.
The ‘hostel’ itself was essentially someone’s home with a few large rooms full of bunks. I was welcomed by a number of other travelers who all not only spoke English but had been in Havana for long enough to show me the ropes. That very first night I sat up with them drinking Rum interrogating every last piece of information I could extract about Cuba itself. I tried to hide my surprise when it was mentioned it was a communist country (news to me) and I actually had to just check my definition of what it means to be a communist country. Gratefully they did not judge my complete and total ignorance. The next few days involved them teaching me about the two currencies, collectivo taxis, where to obtain food and money and the general layout of the city. Each of them in my eyes an angel because as I explained in a recent post ‘The ugly truth about travel fatigue’ I was at a point of exhaustion and what I thought was a quick trip over to Cuba to flit about on a Caribbean beach had become something so completely different. Had I not met each of the aforementioned people I know my experience would have been something close to disastrous and if I am being perfectly honest I was one bad experience away from packing it in and calling it quits. I was beyond breaking point.
Cuba itself is unlike anywhere I have ever been and it stands to change in the very near future. The best way to describe it is like a time warp, it honestly has barely progressed since the 50’s. You don’t visit Cuba for its modern comforts and you certainly don’t visit for its food. You see Cuba to experience a world that in many ways has stood still for over 50 years. Where your taxi will be an ancient car, mojitos and fruit are so cheap they are essentially free and there is always the opportunity to dance. To return to your own country and feel grateful for how far ahead we are and just how lucky we are have to the lives that we do. For me, Cuba was almost a prison that allowed me to rest. No connection to the outside world, basic food and a community of travellers that are phone free and connecting in a way you just don’t get anywhere else.
Would I recommend Cuba? Absolutely. Make sure you get in before the Americans do (sorry not sorry).
Just for the love of god do some research prior to your arrive