For whatever reason, I had never had any real desire to see Cuba, though I had yet to meet anyone who didn’t love it. It just seemed a very expensive way to be herded with a lot of people for a short period of time. Because I am an American, travel is not unrestricted. Then it seemed to change, our president Obama met with Raul Castro and trade was to begin and tourism open up, That was all I needed to get my act together, and develop a deep seated wish to get there before the hordes, forgetting that people have traveled to Cuba for years. I also knew that I did not want to join any tour.
My girlfriend C and I decided to make the trip together, since we are both Swedish as well as American citizens we decided to travel via Nassau. Use our American passports on the first leg and switch to Swedish passports in Nassau before proceeding to Havana, though relations have softened it is still not quite legal to travel to Cuba without a group as an American citizen. There are ways to circumvent it, but we decided to not risk any fines, by having our American passports stamped.
Once the decision was made it turns out that half of the Manhattan population, or at least the ones we know have all been at one time or another. Everybody loved but there were few concrete suggestions. We decided that Casa Particulars was the way to stay. A Casa Particular is a home stay, the cost is fixed at 20-30 CUC per night and breakfast is 5CUC per person. We were only going to be there for 9 days and we didn’t want to travel to too many places, but decided to concentrate on Havana and Trinidad which made our choices simple.
Since USA is still not a trade partner we decided to change our US$ into Euros before we left, which gave us a more favorable rate, once in Cuba. My suggestion is to check with several banks to get the best rate. We could have changed $ into CUC but with a 20% discount once in Cuba it would be an expensive proposition. There are two currencies in effect, one only used by Cubans CUP 25 CUP= 1CUC. 1 CUC is always equal to $1. However when we left and exchanged our CUC into dollars the exchange rate was very favorable.
We arrived in Nassau without any problems. We each had one carry on and a heavy suitcase filled with used clothing that we were donating. Fortunately we could leave them at the airport for $7 apiece. We stayed at Grand Central Hotel in the center of Nassau for the" reasonable” sum of $90. On top of that we had to pay $30 each way for a taxi. Had we realized how far this less than stellar hotel was from the airport we would have made a different choice, however we did have a delicious dinner at Lukka Kairi with conch chowder and shrimp and grits which made the stay more palatable.
Next morning after a substantial breakfast at the café next door, we left for the airport to check in and getting a visa it all went without any problems.
Arriving in Havana was almost surreal, everything went without a hitch until it came time to retrieve the luggage there were two flights arriving at the same time. It was a good hour later that we sighted our bags which we had thought were big and bulky but what we saw that came off the conveyor belts put ours to shame, there were small and large meteors wrapped in plastic with the owners name clearly marked, 3 to 4 flat screens TV' were par for the course. In one end of the arrivals hall we saw women who unpacked enough clothing to stock a department store. They and the customs agents seemed to have a good time discussing the different items.
Finally we were out of cutoms, elbowing our way through throngs of people. What a sigh of relief a sign with my name on it, the driver was waiting for us. This was arranged by our Casa Particular The airport is 27 km from Havana which gave us a leisurely ride in and a chance to absorb that we were actually finally in Cuba.
I had many preconceived notions of Havana and Cuba many which would have to be discarded and revised in the days to come.
It is a country that surprises all the time, not least, the idea that all cars are from the 50’s. True very many are, but there are also newer models on the roads as well as a showroom by Peugeot.
We were very fortunate that we would be in Havana for the latter part of the Biennale 2015 a citywide art exhibit which turned out to be an extraordinary experience.
We arrived to our location in Old Havana, it’s on a small street in a pink building.There is a wooden door which opens up to a very steep concrete narrow staircase.We are greeted with open arms and many hugs as well as two extremely well made Moijitos.Step out on the wrap around terrace and you can speak to your neighbors, which they do.
Our first excursion was to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes which is in a modern building from the 50’s. Some of the floors were closed mainly the art from the colonial period. We started on the top floor where there was a solo exhibit by Rafael Blanco with acrylic paintings of exquisite brushwork and frightening themes of the earth being devoured by trash.
On another floor we encountered an installation of strings, tape and oval stones, It was a beautiful creation by Valos. Unfortunately was not allowed to take pictures nor were there any postcards for sale.
It was time for refreshments and we stepped into a nearby hotel Plaza where we sat in the shady courtyard with a soda and listened to live Music.. Suitably refreshed it was out into the hot afternoon. We walked around towards our destination El Rum Rum restaurant on Calle Empredado.No 256. It’s a lovely little restaurant with reasonable prices and pleasant food.
The following day we took a hop on hop off bus except we stayed on the bus the whole time.It gave us a good overlook of the different parts of the city. What is striking are the contrasts between restored buildings and ramshackle ones. The torn up streets and well maintained even newly paved ones. There are truly gorgeous buildings and wonderful Art Noveau facades, beautiful skeletons, one which C. was going to buy, but decided against it after being informed that she had to marry a Cuban to be able to buy property.
Then we went for the highlight of our trip the Morro-Cabaṅa a dual fort where 250 some artist were exhibiting in the 2 forts. It was exhilarating to see the incredible talents and ingenuity of the artists. We managed to see a large part but the 90+ temperatures got the better of us and it was time for a siesta.
In the following days as we walked the city it became even more obvious how the Biennale affected regular citizens. There was a fruit cart that had a sculpture of hangers topped by two buckets with portraits on the bottom. I never did understand who they were meant to represent.
Another fruit cart was decorated with propellers and wires and canvas. I walked into a school where the 10 year old students had created stick figures of farmers and a slice of their life. Wherever we went there were new art discoveries, an old rehabilitated mansion where a Mexican artist with help of Cuban Architects had built a cardboard environment.