Arrival in Havana
Trip Start Dec 15, 2011
14Trip End Dec 31, 2011
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Upon arrival in Cuba, you are greeted with a pleasurable gust of warm air as you pass from plane to transfer tube-thing. The first thing I noticed was the air, heavy and humid, and faintly smelly like pollution. The second thing were the airport workers - real live Cubans! Maybe I had been expecting old women dressed up in flowery dresses smoking fat cigars to be waving us down from the sky, using glowing bottles of rum as beacons... But, no, in Cubans I first noticed the darker skin and darker eyes, characteristic of sunny climate.
Once inside, we had to pass through customs. We happened to have arrived at the same time as another flight, so the large room was rather crowded. Standing in lines for a good half an hour, we made conversation with those ahead of us. When it came time to enter, you had to walk towards a small booth, inside of which was a customs officer who asked for your passport and tourist card - something we had been given and had to fill out on the airplane. Then they took a picture of you, and buzzed you through the door.
The other side, Cuba, that is. People were suddenly everywhere. Luckily dad and I had no hassle with finding luggage because we had chosen to pack all for the next two weeks into our carry-ons. We went looking for the CADECA, or currency exchange desk we had learned would be somewhere in the airport. A man in a pink shirt picked us out of the crowd, and, offering a taxi ride as well, took us upstairs to a less crowded desk. We exchanged our CAD for some CUCs (pronounced kooks), or Cuban Convertible Pesos, roughly the equivalent of the USD. One thing we learned is to never exchange money anywhere that is not CADECA, and the next was how to ride a taxi.
Our driver took us on a wild ride in his noisy and sputtering old car. You felt the rumble of the engine through the floor and up into your lumbar. He shouted at us over the noise of his vehicle and surrounding traffic, like a drone of war planes passing back and forth. There was no regard for turning signals or the "three-second' rule. We slid past next to other taxis and military vehicles with less than a hand's reach between doors, cutting in front again and swerving around another obstacle. With the windows open, the air was three parts exhaust and one part oxygen. Stopping for gas along the way, our chauffeur hopped out, filled his tank with gas, filled his 2L pop bottle
with gas, tucked it in his trunk, and then we were off again.
We made it to Hotel Plaza unscathed, and on jittery knees we climbed out of the backseat. A normal price for a ride to the airport runs about 25CUC, but we had agreed to 30 before we left. Our driver was an honest man which was a relief, seeing as we had heard so much about the jineteros who would be causing you trouble as soon as you set foot in Cuba. He was friendly, too, and I was happy for the little tour he gave us as we passed landmarks like the Plaza de la Revolucion (him pointing out the giant towers with Che and Camilo's faces on them)
We had read a review which said our hotel had bedbugs, so after checking in and checking ourselves to make sure we were in one piece, we set the traps dad had bought before leaving home. I was wary to sleep in the bed with it's spotted sheets and pillowcase (I brought my own pillowcase to use on hotel pillows, and I'd suggest anyone else to do the same), but when I got horizontal, I fell into a deep sleep.
When I woke up the next morning, I remembered fuzzily where I was. I had to check myself to see I was in working order, and to my relief found no bug bites or mysterious bruises. Then, happily and excitedly, got up to take a wonderful, hot shower.
We had our breakfast at the hotel. Some strange pastries, various limp looking fruits and an assortment of pork and eggs. But awesome machine-pressed orange juice! We decided to take the day to explore Havana. So we descended to and out through the lobby, where the smartly dressed doorman held the door for us. He, along with the various
Dad and I walked North towards the ocean. Passing horse carriages, old (sometimes dilapidated) buildings, a group of young boys playing soccer in the dirt in a compound.. (school?). Everywhere are colours, sights, sounds, and people. Everywhere the rich smell of the city, that is: exhaust, diesel, manure, various things spoiling, old trees, dust, and a salty sea breeze when you get near the Malecon.
There we met Osvaldo, our primero jinetero. We made some odd conversation together and he seemed nice enough. When he learned we were from Canada he wanted to bring us to a statue of some Quebecois figure, and told a little story about how that piece of land once belonged to Québec. After a while we realized he was trying to get us to pay him to bring us on a tour. We had to politely tell him to leave us alone, and gave him 1 CUC for his great trouble of leading us the ten feet to the statue.
That's the problem - the people are really so nice and kind to you, you can't tell when they are being friendly or just trying to garner a few CUCs. I found it's more likely you get hustled in the city, though. In the countryside, barely anybody bothered us for a tip.
Taxis always honk at you in passing, and men standing on the curb are always asking 'taxi?' It must be one of those words that translates into any language. You get used to the multitudes of taxi offers in a day, though, and eventually can ignore their slightly pressing offer with a smile and a shake of the head. Learning to take it all in stride, dad soon became used to the "stressful" questions everywhere you go.
Over the span of the afternoon and the following day we saw a bit more of the city, notably some more of the malecon, a small park with an orchestra set up to play, a rusty old train yard, an odd man and his girlfriend who led us to a bar where was apparently filmed part of Fresas y Chocolate (the film), and where underneath happened to be some live son playing (we got to stay and listen for a bit). We visited the Cuban art museum and bought food on the street. By Saturday night we were tuckered out, so it was a good thing our G Adventures bike group would be assembling Sunday morning.