CUBA! - Life In The Fifties.

Trip Start Feb 01, 2005
Trip End Dec 31, 2020

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Friday, April 8, 2005

Havana, Cuba - decrepit, time-warped, yet astonishingly beautiful!

Our flight was delayed which meant we arrived in Havana late at night. Our first priority was to get money as the Cuban monetary system had only just changed over to a "convertible peso" and this is now the only currency for non Cubans to use and it is not available anywhere else as it is not linked to the world money markets. Heather found an ATM put her card in and it got stuck! Panic!! Heather stayed with the jammed card while Avan went to retrieve the luggage which had not turned up either. Meanwhile 2 Aussie girls came to Heathers rescue with tweezers and plucked the card out of the ATM. Avan also managed to locate our luggage. However our money problem still remained but we found we had about US$20 so we changed this at a money changers into the new Cubana currency. We then moved out into the hotel pickup area, as we had arranged a transfer over the Internet. We found the right business but we were not listed for pick up and the operator's, who didn't speak English, would not take us. It was now 11.30pm, but we luckily found an ATM that worked on the outside of the terminal and took a cab into town. Eventually arriving at our hotel, we were dismayed to find that they didn't seem to know about our booking either - welcome to Cuba! We were wondering why we exactly wanted to come to Cuba, but a bed was found, and like all things we felt very differently in the morning.

We stayed for half of our time in Old Havana in a fifties style hotel, in a seedy district and then moved into a "Casa Particular" which is a home stay arrangement, where you can live with a Cuban family. This was in an old apartment block in a newer section of Havana and we stayed with a widow who could not speak English. When we needed to converse and couldn't get the message across from our Spanish phrase book, she got her nephew when he visited or a neighbour to come and interpret.

Old Havana stole our hearts and imagination. Street after street of Spanish architectural magnificence, crumbling, decaying and decrepit. We wandered the streets for 4 days, 12 hours a day, agog at the beauty and charm of the people, the buildings and the cars. The cultural mix is astonishingly diverse with there being no typical Cuban.

We were "scammed" in the cleverest and most inventive of ways. For instance a lovely young couple with a baby got into conversation with us recognizing we were from Australia by our accents and hats. The man said he had been to Sydney in 2000 as an athlete and we chatted for quite a while, we asking questions about Cuba and they about Australia. They told us one of the hardest things was to get powdered formula milk for the baby. Milk is rationed for Cubans like everything else and we knew this was a fact however as a tourist we can buy whatever we like. We looked at each other and both thought it would be nice to make a positive difference in at least this family's life and so I said "where would we buy this milk?" "Right here" she said indicating a shop close by. Avan and I were thinking maybe $5. What happened next went by in a flash. She speaks to the shopkeeper in Spanish who hands her a plastic bag (could have contained tins of milk but probably not) and she flies out the door and the shopkeeper says to me $29.80!(about $A35.00) Meanwhile they've said to Avan "must go, thanks" and had disappeared totally by the time I had paid and came out of the shop shell shocked. Whether it really was milk for the baby, or rum or whether the scammers return and divide the profits with the shopkeeper (who is in on it?) we'll never really know. The next day a young lady with a baby started a conversation that was heading in the same direction and we stopped her and said "We've already given!!!"

Cuban cars could keep you smiling and taking photos all day. Most cars are 1940's and 50's yank tanks and those that are not are Russian Ladas or 3 wheel lambrettas. The Cuban economy, which prior to 1959 and the commencement of Fidel's communist rule, was tied to the USA, switched to an allegiance with the Soviet Union and the USA trade blockade commenced which is still in place today. Americans still cannot even legally (they risk a large fine if caught and fly in via Canada or Mexico) VISIT Cuba. The old cars are gentled along and kept in excellent condition.

Cubans are very lowly paid and in their own currency. A standard Government job would only earn the equivalent of about $30 US a month. They do have free health, education and housing (the standard varies incredibly) and free entitlements to rationed staples such as beans, rice, eggs, shoes and clothes. Fidel Castro is now 78 years old and still making speeches on TV at night that last for hours. He is finally courting foreign investment notably Canada and France. Cubans don't publicly speak against him but there is a feeling that they are waiting for change. We feel so privileged to have seen the old "stand alone" Cuba.

Of course having no trade with the US there are no fast food outlets, no coke, no franchises just no Modern America at all. Unless you have seen a country without it, it is hard to believe how much franchising has taken over the rest of the world. The shops look like they did in the 50's. Department stores with glass display cases and not much to put in them.

Around a 1/3 of people in Havana are without running water. The water cart comes and they have to haul the water by bucket - by lift, if the lift in the building is working, or if not by rope up the side of the building. Some apartments are 8 floors up! The waste runs out onto the street via an extended pipe, so you have to watch out when walking along that you don't get hit by a shower of dirty water! And yet they are beautifully, immaculately, groomed and dressed people.

We met and befriended a lovely young couple with a baby (nothing to do with the milk for the baby scam!) who lived in the same building where we lived with the widow. We became close friends and we were privileged to be invited for meals and to use the Internet but mostly to be able to learn about their lives. They drove us around and showed us sights and explained things that we would have missed without having Cuban friends. They invited us to a party with their friends on our last night. We enjoyed taking our friends out for a restaurant meal as I couldn't reciprocate by cooking them a meal. We plan to keep in touch even though we live so far apart.

Time to move on.........the date for our flight to Montego Bay Jamaica came and we found ourselves leaving a little reluctantly, but ready for a new place and experience.

Footnote: Old Havana And Its Fortifications are UNESCO World Heritage listed, Havana also features in the book Unforgettable Places to See before you die.
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