Once Upon a Time in Cuba

First impressions…


I   wonder if it’s better to leave a place with great memories or to return and be completely disenchanted with what it has become. I would soon have an answer to this question.

After a nine year absence and ten trips to Cuba between 1995-2004, my curiosity finally lured me back.  I was on my way to the house in Mexico, so it was an easy  connection but  an expensive side trip to Habana.

Knowing that the American dollar was an abused currency in Cuba, I asked a friend to get me Canadian dollars while he was in Vancouver.  I was sure with all the Canadian tourists on package holidays, I would get a good exchange rate. After waiting a half hour for luggage in the old arrivals building, and convincing one of the customs officials that I was not bringing in contraband, I escaped a mob scene of returning Cubans pushing huge bundles of merchandise.


The money exchange of course was not inside the arrivals building and there didn’t seem to be any porters around so I was on my own, dragging two suitcases on rollers with a laptop case hanging from my shoulder.  The currency exchange was at the far end of a dilapidated adjoining building, next to the window selling bus tickets.   There was a tall, skinny Cuban man in charge of sending people to the cashier windows. He pointed me towards the teller who seemed extremely unhappy with his job. ( at that point I didn’t know his salary was 300 Cuban pesos a month or $12)  I gave him $450 Canadian bills and he said I was getting $413 Cuban dollars.

Not happy about losing $37 (8%), I wanted to know the exchange rate.  He threw my Canadian money back at me, refusing to change my money.  After hassling with the other cashier, I finally accepted my devalued currency.  The only explanation for the discounted currency is because the government can…As I discovered too late, the Mexican peso is the best currency to bring to Cuba. Alas and I had flown from Mexico City.

Getting into Habana was another challenge.  After being refused several times by taxi drivers, I finally found one that was willing to take me into Habana. Even though I shared the cab with two Cubans returning from Miami with bales of clothes, I paid full fare.


As we drove down to 23rd St to La Rampa cinema, where I was meeting Margot, my Cuban friend’s mom, the buildings seemed more rundown than I remembered.

Margot had reserved a room in an apartment in Centro Habana, an area that always reminded me of the housing projects in New York City. Since I never stay in upscale hotels in  underdeveloped countries, there is always a moment of shock  when I see the condition of my sleeping quarters. As long as its clean and has aprivate bathroom I can deal with most situations. This was one of them. Bad fifites retro with heavy mahogany furiniture and  an almost clean banos. My host was an 81year old woman who gave me permission to bring guests if I so desired. Money accommodates lots of choices. I explained that was not my reason for returning to Cuba.


After spending a few days wandering the streets, it was obvious that most of the   buildings were in a permanent state of deterioration. I did get a chance to speak with two Cuban workers who were renovating only the facades of early twentieth century buildings on the Malecon, the ocean promenade.  They explained the people living in the buildings had to renovate the interiors themselves.  The government was not doing the residents a favor, just cleaning up the street view for all the tourists driving by in cars and buses.


Pushing my way through the crowded streets in Habana Viejo, there were probably as many tourists as Cubans.  Bars had musicians blaring sounds reminiscent of the Buena Vista Social Club, crowded with middle-aged couples on two week holidays, drinking mojitos as the travel books advise and imagining they were transported back to another century.    Few foreigners visiting Cuba bother to walk through Centro Habana and see  how most Cubans have to live.   The other day I decided to wander through the back streets with my camera, easily chatting with Cubans since my Spanish has reached a very respectable level.

The streets lined with three story high rundown buildings, were filled with garbage and through open doors, I looked into dark stairwells with broken marble staircases. I saw people shoveling stones in a gated area and was told their house had collapsed and they were building a wooden shack to live in.

I saw three men repairing a marble floor in a first floor apartment and stopped to ask them how they saw the situation in their country.  They agreed with my observations. The government had created an exotic Cuba for the tourist, building with European partners, luxury hotels, expensive gourmet restaurants and investing in new tour buses and a fleet of new taxis.

Another observation was the police on their shiny new Moto Guzzi Nevada bikes which cost at least $7000.  The Cubans, however, were still using 1950s American cars as shared taxis or collectivos.  But ironically most of the population cannot even afford the ten pesos ($.30) for a collectivo and are forced to ride the public buses which were infrequent and dangerously overcrowded. One afternoon I couldn’t find a shared cab and a bus appeared.  A Cuban on the bus paid my one peso ($.04) fare while I searched for change.  But within minutes, twenty more people were stuffed into the bus.  Even the New York subway was never this bad. I lasted  one more stop before I escaped with an 80 year old Cuban lady who worked in the film industry.

I treated her to a cab.

To be continued

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