Treasury be hatin'
in Havana, Cuba on 8th April, 2013

San Jose airport in Costa Rica had some of the most low-key exit controls of anywhere we'd been on our trip. There was a quick bag x-ray and a guy to check our passports and boarding cards. That was it, no exit stamps or multiple, long queues, just a quick check. It was like leaving Estonia by air for another Schengen-zone member state.

Waiting by the gate we struck up a conversation with an American woman who was traveling to Cuba. She said 200,000 Americans were visiting there every year. I suggested if an American flew from the States to Mexico, then to Cuba and then onto Costa Rica before returning home, because Mexico doesn't do exit stamps and Cuba won't place any stamps in passports, all the time spent in Cuba will look like you were in Mexico. She said most people aren't that elaborate and the American government doesn't care so much about the embargo these days.

Soon after takeoff the pilot made an announcement that he was seeing a maintenance message about the wheels and needed to lower and raise them mid-flight to see if they were working properly. When he said that I was scared we were going to die.

We could hear a large amount of turbulent air around the wheels as they lowered. They stayed down for about 30 seconds before being raised back up again.

I never really think that I'm in any danger of being on a defective aircraft when I travel. I worry about missing flights, having to pay large amounts of money at the last minute or being sick during a flight but never that the plane won't be able to land on it's wheels properly.

We landed safely at Havana airport a few hours later, went through all the security, got our bags, exchanged some money and then set off in a taxi for our flat we'd be staying in. Everything everywhere looked like the 1950s with the exceptions of a few newer Asian-made cars on the road. I thought the roads would be empty except for exclusively 1950s American cars as that's all people ever tend to photograph but the range of vehicles on the road was wider than that. Another thing I noticed is that everyone was obeying the speed limit and driving very carefully.

We stayed with a Cuban family while in Havana. When we arrived I carried one bag up some narrow flights of stairs while the Husband of the family carried the other. We then sat in the living room, drank some juice with the owner while she gave us a briefing on what to see in Havana. The husband drew a map on a piece of paper explaining the route of an introductory walking tour we could take.

We then set off to walk around and explore. We do a good job of blending in in most countries we visit but here was not the case. People in the street would say things like "Happy Honeymoon" and asked if we were Russian. Cubans walked around with full-length pants and tended to carry nothing visible with them. They would often wear clothes which looked like stuff 14-year-olds would wear back in the 1990s. We stood out like sore thumbs.

One of the first stop offs we had was at a souvenir market. We bought a box, a wallet and a few other things. No one would haggle on prices, they were all fixed. The prices were pretty low to begin with but it was weird that there was no high-balling going on.

We eventually reached Obispo, a walking street with several restaurants. We sat in one which had a Salsa band playing. Their performance was incredible. I bought one of their CDs before we left. Our dinner was okay. The rice was hard and tasted like it had been cooked overtop burning rubbish.

Afterword we did a small bar crawl trying out different cocktails in each of the bars.

In one of the bars I thought I'd try a Cuban cigar. I'd heard they were the best in the world and even though I don't smoke cigars, I thought it would be a waste to not try one. I saw a list of random brands on the menu but each of them were just cigerettes and not cigars. Eventually we walked up to a shop near Central Park to buy some.

The door was closed but there were two men outside waiting to greet us. One offered authentic, official cigars at a nearby shop. In a moment of madness we followed him. He walked us down to a block of flats about 100 meters away from the shop. We walked up some dodgy-looking stairs and into the flat of a woman selling knock-off cigars. I felt calmed by the presence of two other white travelers in there checking out the cigars.

Triin heard that women working in the cigar factories steal small amounts of tobacco and other items every day and take them home to make cigars that they can sell for themselves.

I lifted a few of the boxes of cigars and picked ones out to smell them. They really didn't smell like anything. I asked if it was possible to buy just one or two. They didn't like the sound of that and really pushed for a box. I said if I liked one or two then I'd come back and buy a box as a present for my friends but I wouldn't be pressured into making a big purchase. The guy in the room eventually sold me three cigars for 13 dollars. The man then walked into a random person's flat, took a knife to cut the end of the cigar off and lit it up.

I smoked it as we walked back to our flat. Walking with it in my hand was a huge flare going off for hustlers to try and sell us more knock-off cigars. Eventually we reached our flat and sat on the balcony. I finished about half of the cigar and didn't really like it at all. I made sure I got the end of the cigar wet as possible before throwing it away to avoid burning down the flat. There was a lingering, unpleasant taste in my mouth for a few brushings too.

The owners of our flat were really lovely people and they did all they could to make things as comfortable as possible for us. The first night I had a shower the shower head was spraying and leaking in odd directions a bit. I put my hand on it to try and reposition it and I ended up getting an electric shock. It also might have been a coincidence but the first lot of toilets we came across, including the one in our flat, were missing toilet seats.

I switched on the air conditioning unit in our room but all that came out was air that was slightly warmer than the ambient temperature. I switched on the fan in the room as well. If I had a cold shower and had all these devices on, the room was just about cool enough to sleep in. Unfortunately, it also meant that it was insanely loud in the room and was like sleeping in a wind tunnel. Sleeping under a bridge would probably result in a better night's sleep.

I spent the first full morning in Havana photographing cars as they drove by. The place was a living car museum. I can't remember standing on the side of a city road and waiting with anticipation like that before.

Hardly anyone has a mobile phone in Cuba and you don't see any advertisements anywhere (except those calling for the release of Cuban spies in jail in America and the odd propaganda poster here and there). There is also no wifi in Cuba. I would later find out that almost no one is allowed on the internet.

Our landlord did have an Internet connection though. We tried to use it. It took a minute or so for the modem to dial out. Once connected we could load facebook but it took probably a minute to see anything. Then Triin logged into her gmail account and replied to an email. I logged into mine and Google told me I was connecting from a restricted country and refused to serve me. Everything was so painfully slow that we gave up after that.

It didn't sit good that we were about to spend the whole of our holiday in Cuba without the Internet. Our flight bookings were being changed by the airlines we'd booked with regularly and they were only notifying me via email of the changes. I ended up calling my Aunt in Canada and getting her to check my emails for me. I called her back every odd day to hear if there was anything in there.

One thing that could have made our lives even more difficult was taking out money. Had I lost my cards or banks didn't want to talk to each other during the trip, we would have been in a tight spot. A friend of mine visited Cuba with £2,500 in his pocket to avoid any problems. I took about $800 US Dollars with us when we started our trip as I was worried about robberies and trusted HSBC and Swedbank would dispense money in each of these places we were visiting.

The first visit to an ATM in Havana was a success. I asked for 300 USD worth of money and got denied but then I asked for 200 and it dispensed properly. The second time I tried I went to three machines in the same building with two different cards before one decided to hand some money over. It was a little alarming in the moments leading up to finally getting some money out.

We did get to do some cool stuff in Havana too. We did an hour-long ride in a 1968 Impala Convertible around Havana. Like with many cars built in America before the turn of the century, the seats were ripped, the seat belts were missing and the doors opened 'Dukes of Hazzard'-style from the outside.

We also spent an evening dancing to live Salsa and other types of music at Casa de la Musica. People danced like they didn't care there and many had 2-liter bottles of cola on their tables.

We ended up staying at this flat twice during our stay in Cuba. Our second stay there was for two nights. Originally we were to leave Cuba for the Bahamas on the 18th of April but the airline cancelled the flight and we had to rebook for the 20th.

On the first night Triin went to have a shower in the owner's bathroom. I stripped down to my boxer shorts after Triin left the room in an effort to cool down. I heard a knock at the door and thought it was Triin. It turned out to be the owner of the house with a glass of Rum in his hand for me. He handed it to me and walked away. I closed the door and looked at the Rum. It felt weird that I had just accepted an alcoholic drink from another man in my underwear but I thought it would be rude just to drink it alone in my room. I put some clothes on and walked into his kitchen to drink it with him.

In the kitchen there was the husband, his wife, their daughter and another Cuban man trying to fix their computer and a new tablet device the husband had bought. I parked a chair in front of them and watched while drinking away.

The husband had managed to save $150 and bought a tablet from a South American student in Havana. They wanted to copy files onto the device and hopefully some games as well. Wifi is banded in Cuba so they would need to sync it to the PC they had. The drivers weren't working. I did my best to help the Cuban technician get the drivers working but after an hour it reached 9pm and the Internet connection shut down for the night.

The technician explained a few things to me that made me realise how stuck these people were even if they did want to get ahead. He said 1 in 1,000 people in Cuba go online. Only high-up government employees, diplomats and foreign business people can apply to get on the Internet. These people setup modems with special phone numbers in their offices and rent out that connection to other people illegally. They have time slots that people can dial in on and if you're outside your time slot, you can't connect.

Secondly, it took the Husband a very long time to collect $150 for the tablet. I was amazed that there are Android tablets that cheap but for them it was like buying a car.

I felt bad for them. I went to my room and got my MacBook Pro and my iPad. I started up the Mac and got the tablet connected to it. The technician had a USB stick that we used to copy all the music and videos off the PC onto the tablet via my laptop.

I then showed the family my iPad. We went through all the apps and games and basically anything that didn't need to connect to the internet. They stood with wide eyes watching it. I let the daughter play Angry Birds and Crazy Taxi for a bit. The mother asked if we could copy those games onto the Windows machine or the tablet and I said they wouldn't work.

On the Android tablet the girl got there was 16 apps in total and most were just to configure the device. I didn't see anything for writing, making music or drawing. It was sad, it was basically a little TV which showed some Anime videos she'd manage to come across. A lot of what I know about computing came from casual browsing of the Internet and trying things. For them, this wasn't going to happen anytime soon.

I told them if they have foreigners staying with them that some might have a Mac laptop and could copy more stuff on to the tablet for them. Also, if they trusted any of the travelers, they could take the device to another country and load it up with apps and mail it back to them.

I read in the Lonely Planet guide for Cuba that the country was changing and we should go now. I think this is true, most of the buildings looked like they were about to fall over and Havana could end up being mostly rubble in 20 years if nothing is done.

When we flew out of Cuba on the 20th, I looked out the window of the aircraft as it was turning onto the runway and I could see all the way to the other end. I thought to myself how many Cubans would like to be in this seat right now.

Recent Posts