THE LUXURY OF CUBA PART I
I’d been fascinated with Afro-Cuban culture; the people, religion, art, music and dance, ever since I was a child listening to my daddy play Celia Cruz records. I dreamed of one day traveling to Cuba, but this was a dream deferred until 2015 when the Obama administration lifted the 50-year ban on American travel to Cuba. I wanted to go ASAP, but waited for some of the kinks to be ironed out. For example, the initial group trips to Cuba involved privately chartered planes and fees that made them extortion-level expensive. Travel itineraries were also restrictive as all activities were planned out without any off-leash time to explore on your own. As I waited, more commercial airlines began flying to Cuba, the price to travel there went down dramatically and the group-travel requirement changed to allow people-to-people travel. As long as your reason for traveling there fit one of the 12 approved categories including business, family, education or religion, you could travel to Cuba without much hassle. You also could plan your own itinerary. With these changes, news that Southwest Airlines had begun flying to Cuba and the uncertainty of Trump’s plans for the island, I purchased my plane ticket in April.
TRAVELING TO CUBA From Chicago, it took about four and a half hours to reach Cuba including a stop in Florida for the visa (included in the ticket price for $50). After landing, I passed through customs fairly quickly and then exchanged money. The U.S. dollar is not accepted in Cuba. CUC (convertible peso) is the form of currency used by tourists, which is comparable in value. However, to get a better exchange rate, it is best to exchange your dollars for Euros or Pounds and then change those into CUC. Additionally, there aren’t any ATMs and you won’t be able to use debit or credit cards. I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't have enough money for all of the things I wanted to buy! When I left the airport, I stepped out into a suffocating blob of family and friends awaiting the arrival of loved ones mixed with cab drivers aggressively soliciting fares. I had never seen anything like this. The casa where I was going to be staying had arranged for a driver to pick me up from the airport, but I couldn’t find him in the chaos. I couldn’t call to ask where he was either because unless you install a Sim Card for Cuba’s network, your phone won’t work. I had purchased a card beforehand, but wasn’t able to pry open my phone to install it. Fortunately, one of the cab hustlers noticed my panic and offered to call my casa hostess for me. Disaster diverted, a driver arrived shortly thereafter to take me to the casa. FIRST IMPRESSION On the way to the casa, I saw several crumbling buildings that were hanging on by a thread. Classic cars from the 50s and 60s in every color of the rainbow were driving up and down the roads, leaving thick clouds of exhaust behind. The names and images of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were everywhere - on buildings, cars, t-shirts, etc. I’d traveled extensively throughout the Caribbean, but Cuba already felt different.
CENTRAL HAVANA DIGS I made it to the casa and was greeted by the delightful hostess who met me on the street and had her son carry my bags up the three flights of stairs to my accommodations. She then gave me a tour of her home. There was a small bedroom, living room with balcony and private bathroom. I was told that due to old plumbing, I couldn’t flush toilet paper in the toilet. Okay, that’s a first! Apparently, this is a problem on the island as many homes don’t have functional plumbing. In the bedroom, there was a flatscreen TV on the wall, but no Internet or Wi-Fi. The homes and buildings in Cuba don’t have Internet or Wi-FI access. Locals and tourists must go to Wi-Fi parks to use the Internet. Lastly, there was no AC in the casa, only a small fan. The accommodations were basic, but at $35 a night with a delicious and generous $5 per day Cuban style breakfast, I didn’t complain. Instead, I adjusted my expectations for luxury and eased into the cultural paradigm shift. After the tour, I dropped my bags, and hit the streets armed with only a map and rusty Spanish skills.
As I wandered about Havana's str