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Anticipating my first encounter with Cuba

Hemingway novel

Preparing to visit Cuba is a puzzle. I’m excited, intrigued, and eager, but my pre-travel research leaves me with more questions than answers.

The rules for visiting Cuba have opened up, but there are still many restrictions. As I read the online magazines and blogs, I still see that Fidel’s fearmongering is present, if somewhat lightened, by Raul’s reforms. There are apparently still government ‘minders’ on every block, internal information gatherers for each neighborhood. But I am reading that the pressure is greatly lessened now, that the fear is lifting. I hope this trend will accelerate in the coming months and years. Although I travel abroad every year, I have never been to a communist country before this, and in truth my U.S. brain is having a hard time even imagining a situation in which I cannot do whatever I want, whenever I want. I suppose this is a combination of white privilege, U.S. arrogance, and the relative safety of my suburban neighborhood.

The educational travel company I use for traveling with students has a partnership with an organization that can provide the necessary visas and book the flights from Miami to Havana. U.S. citizens still cannot book their own flights, and we still need a purpose beyond beachcombing to obtain a visa. (At least, that seems to be true as of this writing. The rules are changing quickly.) As our departure date nears, my travel company has informed us that we will have to stick with the itinerary exactly and there is unlikely to be any independent wandering about. The other travel sources I’ve been reading concur: stick with the schedule.

What does this mean, exactly? I’m a musician, and going to see live Cuban music is one of my longest-held, most intent travel desires. There are many terrific venues and musicians in Havana. If it is not pre-scheduled, will we be banned from going? What if others in my group run out of steam (as often happens) before I do? Will I have to go back to the hotel at 9 pm because someone else is sleepy?

My other Cuban dreams are already on the itinerary: Hemmingway’s home, a walking tour of the elegant historic quarter, and many sites of twentieth century history such as Revolution Square, the Muraleando Project and the Revolution Museum, housed in the former presidential palace. I don’t mind traveling with a group, and I know they’ve arranged some lovely meals in paladars, the family run home bistros that are part of the local custom.  I’m ready to be flexible and to play along with the program.

Yet further research has revealed the suggestion to bring your own toilet paper, as this is a rationed commodity in Cuba! Apparently as you enter public toilets someone will hand you a few pieces of TP, because if they leave a roll in the stall it will soon be stolen. In a country that can manage to provide free world-renowned healthcare and public schools, the unavailability of toilet paper seems a strange contradiction. Perhaps I’d better prepare myself for those inexplicable surprises.

Today my tour manager has also warned that we should not drink the water in Havana, or even use it to clean our teeth. Bottled water will be available, of course. Is this journey is going to be like camping with congas?

My packing list therefore includes: toilet paper, handi wipes, hand sanitizer, disposable toothbrushes, bug spray, sunscreen, loperamide tablets, and an assortment of drugstore items for every scenario.

Just as my intrepid spirit begins to waver, I get an email link to our hotel in Havana—a restored palace on the Paseo de Prado. It is luxurious and beautiful, with a rooftop pool and a view of the elegant Bacardi building. I am once again swept up in anticipation. This will be a terrific adventure—I think.

Then there’s the currency issue. Cuba has two currencies. One is the old peso which is only useful to Cubans and seems to be almost like ration cards or tickets (also needed by locals for groceries and other essentials). The hard currency is the convertible peso called CUC, established a few years ago to be on par with the dollar and the euro. However, when you exchange dollars for the CUC you pay a 13% tax, which is not charged for any other currency in the world. Some sources recommend bringing euros to exchange for pesos, which may work out to be a slight advantage as long as the euro stays low. My local bank gives me a good rate for euros, so I will try that out and compare the total exchange costs.

Here my American ego strikes again: Are we sure they don’t want dollars?

My parents visited Russia several times in the early 1990’s, just after the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain came crashing down. The ruble was essentially worthless, and they found that shops all over Russia wanted dollars most of all, but would take European currencies as well. My mother’s little snack packs of M&M’s drew interest from locals, who could not buy candy, so she ended up using chocolate as a tip for waiters and taxi drivers. Cuba’s economy has not collapsed, but they have suffered from losing the support of the old U.S.S.R. Raul seems to be adapting the Chinese model of Communism plus Capitalism to keep the economy afloat, recently allowing individuals to develop their own business ideas and letting farmers sell their produce freely at local markets.

Still, if I am buying from a street vendor, is there a chance that they will prefer dollars to pesos? This is a question no one is answering, and perhaps this is because the answer is “No, there is no preference for dollars.” We shall see.

Let us return, then, to the one question that really gets to the heart of the matter:

If I can’t drink the water, can I brush my teeth with Bacardi?


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