Cuba: The (American) Travel Experience
16 - 22 June 2017
"Writing and travel broaden your ass, if not your mind, and I like to write standing up."
Take a look around Cuba. It's the only place I've ever been — and I've been around and seen a lot — where I walked the streets and felt a bizarre sense of a complete and utter lack of commerce, of industry — of progress — coursing through the streets. Sure. There are cigars, rum and music. Money trades hands. Mojitos and daquiris bring on a tipsiness to complement the beat of the drums and the energy of the songs.
But it's an odd vibe in Havana, outside of the bars and music halls.
For whatever reasons, there seems to be a renewed sense in some corners of the world that socialism is where "it" is at. But I keep thinking back to my days in Vietnam — in December 2016.
On a trip to Cu Chi (southern Vietnam, outside Saigon — or Ho Chi Minh City), I had a nice young travel guide who spoke English well and was very good at carrying on conversations with the group. He spoke of his appreciation for America, for our freedoms and liberties. He also railed against his own country's socialist environment. Nothing is free, everything is expensive. And there's a lack of opportunity.
Contrast that with the tour guide I had in Hanoi, northern Vietnam. He was an older man and his English was sketchy at best. Rather monotone in his delivery, it was hard to follow his tangential trains of thought. His dialogue went from A to Y to E to G and the stumbled into Z. Huh?
During a one-on-one chat, he observed the condition of the world. Things are heating up all over. The answer, he's determined, is this: Socialism.
After using certain services and staying at the awesome Majestic Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, I was flooded with surveys asking me for input. Not a one came from any place or service in Hanoi and the northern areas.
North. South. Forever divided. It further highlighted the madness of the 1960s and 1970s and all the bloodshed and treasure put into service during the war.
Join the Queue
Get away from the tour groups. Get away from the four-star Sheraton. Walk the streets. Observe. Venture away from the live music and the alcohol, hang out where the Cuban citizens live. There's a sense people are not happy. Much like in southern Vietnam, I got the sense there is a will being brought over the people and it is not the will of the people.
I don't know what it is about me, but I can't even take a minute to stand on a street corner without being hit up in some form or fashion. Not just in Cuba. It happens all over. It even happens in Denver, hanging out at a bar while grabbing some grub.
The funniest time was standing on a street corner in Luxor. A British guy walked up to me and asked me if I spoke English. I kiddingly said, "A little bit." He had a legitimate question about the market and it turned out he was friends with Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert, the authors of The Orion Mystery. That was a frickin' cool chance encounter.
Most of the time, though, I wind up hearing all kinds of stories.
For example, there was the guy who admired my Nikes and started talking about his father in America. Oh... Wait. I kept walking and he stopped following. That was later in the Cuba trip. I was pretty much maxed out on the "stories" at that point.
There was, however, another time when I stopped to take in my surroundings and a guy approached me with his tale of woe. He had lost a digit while working in construction. He gets paid a pittance in Cuban Pesos and then has to convert into Cuban Convertibles in order to shop (down the block, though, was a store I could've sworn only accepted the pesos, which foreigners generally speaking don't have access to nor should they want to). Compelling stuff. But then he lost me when he pointed out the restaurant across the street, where he currently works. As an American, he informs me, I can go over there and enjoy free food and drink.
C'mon. I know I look young, but I wasn't born yesterday.
Then he started telling me about his sister. Oh brother (no pun intended). Don't even. Time to move on.
Cuba is a place where people queue up for everything. To use the phone. To get on the internet and to get into banks. They queue up outside various stores. They queue up en masse at bus stops.
You Want to Do What? When?
Foreigners have to queue up in order to get help from travel agents. Those agents, by the way, are easily the least helpful I've ever encountered. It was perhaps the single-most bizarre aspect of the entire trip and a proofpoint that Cuba is not ready for a modern tourism industry.
Gaviota Tours: Four Points by Sheraton, Miramar District
- Offered a Hemingway tour every Tuesday.
- After getting past my "thick" American accent, I finally got the scoop on Buena Vista Social Club tickets.
- Found out about a two-day trip to Santa Clara and Guanayara, but it leaves every Sunday morning; it was already past departure time at that point.
- Since I had painted myself into a logistical corner at the time, I had to go map out what I was going to do and where I was going to be and when. When I returned (on a rainy Sunday early afternoon), she was gone.
Gaviota Tours: Mercure Sevilla, Old Havana
- I was informed they offer no Hemingway tours.
- End of conversation.
- I had no interest in pressing with this person. I kinda felt like I should apologize for asking; she clearly did not want to work and wanted to go back to hanging out with the other merchants.
Viajes Cubanacan: Hotel Clasico Plaza, Old Havana
- They offer a Hemingway tour (pamphlets were prominent in the lobby), but there's a six-person minimum. By dint of being a single traveler and their not being connected to computers, I was advised to get a personal car. Then the agent looked at me, wondering why I was still sitting in front of her. (Alternatively, I could attempt to corral five other people, of course.)
- Same agent was adamant that I had to buy a show and dinner package for the Buena Vista Social Club. Show-only tickets were "impossible."
San Cristobal: Hotel Ambos Mundos, Old Havana
- In fairness, the guys here were really nice and wanted to help.
- For Buena Vista Social Club tickets, I was advised to speak with Daylen at the Lampanilla office, around the corner and down the street, at 10:00 a.m. on Monday.
- One of the guys recommended I come back to see him the next day. He had cigars he could sell me.
Mattopia Travel Agency (MTA): Unaffiliated, Everywhere
- I did my own Hemingway tour, thank you very much.
- I went to the Buena Vista Social Club box office and got a show-only ticket for the exact date and time I wanted. Plus, I got to meet some of the lovely ladies working there and had a fun little chat with one of the managers, who appreciated my being an American in Cuba.
Day Trip? Not So Fast!
I had hoped to head out to Santa Clara for an excursion, but I was disinclined to tackle the 4-hour bus ride each way. Plus, more than one person told me to avoid the trains. They're dangerous for tourists, I was advised. I thought of my train ride from Tangier to Marrakech years ago; I was never in harms way personally, but it was a fascinating night ride filled with drama and contraband, black eyes and cradled arms. It's a train adventure documented in the Young Mattopia Jones Chronicles, which have not yet been brought online.
Fine. Whatever. No trains.
Obviously, planning the entire trip in advance is one option. It's not my style, though. I haven't gone on a trip with everything mapped out in ages. In this case, though, the "system" moves too slow for on-the-fly travels, which is almost counter-intuitive for a place like Cuba. A better option — for me — would be to make the next trip longer, allowing for more scheduling options.