Cuba, and preparing to return home...

Published: November 26th 2006
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Every year for the past 14 years, the United Nations General Assembly has voted overwhelmingly in favour of a resolution calling on the United States to end its trade embargo against Cuba, originally introduced in 1961, several months after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Every year for the past 14 years, the United States has ignored this call by up to 182 nations. While I don't want to go into the rights and wrongs of the embargo and the government of Fidel Castro, the embargo did influence our travels: In order to get to Havana from Los Angeles, we had to fly via a third country, as no direct commercial flights exist between the US and Cuba.

On Friday evening we left the United States on an Air Canada flight to Toronto. I was surprised to find that no one asked to see my passport at LAX before we boarded the plane. And I thought security was supposed to be tight nowadays! When I asked an Air Canada ground staff member what I was supposed to do with the exit card which had been stapled into my passport upon arrival in San Francisco, she shrugged before ripping it out of my passport nonchalantly and throwing it on the desk in front of her. We spent just over 24 hours in Toronto, a city which I had visited before and like the feel of, before we continued our journey to Havana.

We arrived in Havana on Sunday afternoon. We had read in my Lonely Planet guidebook that three currencies were in circulation in Cuba: Cuban pesos, convertible pesos, and US dollars. When we arrived at the airport of Havana with a wad of cash dollars, we were somewhat surprised to find that the US dollar was no longer the currency of choice, and had ceased to be accepted in Cuba in November 2004. We had to change our dollars into convertible pesos, and were charged a 10% tax which is now applied to US dollar transactions, but not to other currencies. We got through customs and immigration without a problem though, and soon stepped out into the Caribbean sunshine.

On our way to our hotel we got a first taste of the look of Havana. We spotted the odd old American car that was imported prior to the revolution, and instead of the usual billboards advertising McDonalds, there were pictures of Fidel and Che Guevara, as well as anti-Imperialist cartoons. Unfortunately it also was clear that Havana's infrastructure is suffering from a lack of investment, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviets used to provide the Cubans with large amounts of aid and cheap oil, and a guaranteed market for its sugar exports. When this support fell away in 1991, the country was dealt a massive economic blow.

We checked into the Hotel Habana Riviera, which was built in the 1950s by mafia boss and New York gangster Meyer Lansky. Lansky was an advisor on gambling reform to the pre-revolution government of President Batista, and the hotel was to be the largest casino-hotel in the world outside Las Vegas. Unfortunately for Lansky, Castro's revolutionary government closed down the gambling industry and kicked the American Mafiosi out of the country in 1959. Nowadays, the hotel is still a nice place to stay, with its prominent position along the Malecón and the rooms' terrific sea view, even though the hotel.

I stayed in Havana from Sunday afternoon until Tuesday afternoon. Havana is a wonderful city to walk around in. The city's old quarter, Habana Vieja, has imposing churches and beautiful buildings and squares. The Malecón boulevard is a great venue for an evening stroll as the sun is setting. The food is not nearly as bad as its reputation suggests and the Cuban people are very friendly and welcoming to foreigners. They are used to trying to make some money out of tourists though! During our time it became clear that tipping is the norm here for every single service, from being given an explanation in a museum to your luggage being put in the hold of a coach for you. Can you blame them though? Given that an average worker earns around $15 per month, they would be silly not to try to earn some hard currency.

On Tuesday afternoon I took a coach from Havana to the beach resort of Varadero, some 140 km east of Havana. Varadero is the largest resort complex in the Caribbean, with nearly 15,000 rooms. Apparently one in every three foreign visitors to Cuba doesn't set foot outside Varadero. As a result, it has got a bit of a resort feel, and is a destination for beach bums rather than those who wish to experience Castro's Cuba. Phil decided to stay in Havana for one more day, and to join me later in Varadero. As the end of our journey was coming near, I was looking forward to recuperating on the beach for a while, and to do some scuba diving. The journey by coach to Varadero was surprisingly comfortable; Viazul runs modern air-conditioned coaches for tourists between the island's main tourist attractions; and the views of the countryside and coastline were very nice. In Varadero I took a taxi to the Hotel Internacional, once again a former casino. The hotel was built in the early 1950s by William Liebow, a U.S. citizen of Jewish origin, as he was not allowed to stay at Varadero's Kawama Hotel because of racial reasons. It's a grand place with spacious rooms, a beautiful beach, and friendly staff. I got myself an all-in deal, which meant that I could drink all the mojitos that I wanted.

Over the next three days, I went scuba diving for two days with the Barracuda Diving Centre. We dived five sites in all: Sletreal Wreck, Neptuno Wreck, Russian Destroyer BP383, Tug Boat Remol Cador, and Caribe Wreck. As one can tell from the names of the sites, Cuba is big on wreck diving. A lack of colourful coral (mainly different shades of brown and green) and a low diversity of marine life encouraged the Cubans to sink a couple of ships to serve as artificial reefs. While I wouldn't recommend coming to Cuba on a diving holiday, when here it is a pleasant pastime. The wreck of the Russian Destroyer BP383 is very imposing, and I had an up-close encounter with a huge friendly moral eel at the wreck of the Neptuno which I won't quickly forget. The staff was extremely friendly, and cooked us fresh lobster lunches while we were under water.

While in Varadero, I came across some people with some interesting anecdotes:
* At the hotel we met an American guy who had arrived in Cuba from Mexico. By visiting Cuba without authorisation from his government he risked a fine of up to $250,000 and up to 10 years in jail upon his return to the United States. As if this wasn't enough, he got involved with the police and black marketers in Havana: After having been approached in the street by a man who hoped to sell cigars, he went back to the man's house to cut the deal. As he had little money on him, it was arranged that he would already take his cigars while only paying half the arranged amount. The Cuban seller and an associate were to come to his hotel room in the evening to pick up the other half of the cash. Things started to go not quite as planned when he got arrested by the police for buying cigars on the black-market as he left the house. The fact that he spoke pretty good Spanish might been beneficial to him though. After having been locked up for a couple of hours, the police let him out and even gave him back his black-market cigars. When he met the cigar sellers in his hotel room that evening, he saw an opportunity to save himself some money. He told them that he had been arrested and that the cigars had been confiscated. As he supposedly no longer had the cigars, he refused to pay the other half of the agreed sum. They left, promising to use their contacts in the police to get the merchandise back, and to return to finish the deal the next
Anti-American billboardAnti-American billboardAnti-American billboard

Mister Imperialists - We're absolutely not afraid of you!
day. Realising that the gang might not be too happy when they realised he had tried to cheat them, he quickly left Havana for Varadero the next morning, before they could return.

* One of Barracuda Diving Centre's guides mentioned to me that he would love to visit the United States and Western Europe once, as the only foreign countries he had visited were Russia and some former-Soviet states, such as Belarus. Seeing how surprised I was to hear this, he quickly explained that he used to represent Cuba on the fencing team at some Communist version of the Olympic Games, until a knee injury forced him to retire from the sport.

* Another guest at the hotel was a young Cuban guy from Matanzas who was on holiday in Varadero with his family. He explained that while the average Cuban can not afford to stay at the resorts luxury hotels, employers sometimes treat their workers to free holidays in Varadero and other resorts. They were there by courtesy of his mum's boss. An interesting chap to talk to, he told us of how many Cubans, including him, see some kind of father figure in Fidel Castro. When I asked him whether he felt some resentment towards American people because of the embargo, he said that whilst he was no fan of the American government, he was very interested in getting to know American people and the American way of life.

By Saturday, our trip around the world had almost come to an end. Phil and I took a coach back from Varadero to Havana. We wondered once more around beautiful Habana Vieja, and spent the night at Hotel Los Frailes, before leaving for the airport on Sunday morning. Next up were two more flights on the worst airline of the trip, Air Canada, from Havana to Toronto and then on to London Heathrow.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end at some point. Our journey, which took us through a dozen countries in 100 days, surely has provided me with a lot of fond memories that I will cherish for a long time to come. However, after all this time the feeling of getting back home is a good one, even though I'm afraid it won't be long before I start planning for new adventures...


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