Friday, 5 September 2014

Viva la Revolucion: Havana, Cuba

Vibrant Havana
On our way to Havana on the 5th of August 2013, I felt excited. Cuba definitely has a contagious energy of dance, music, and joy. My first visit to Cuba was in 2004 and I was thrilled to go back and reconnect with this Caribbean pearl. We were picked up by my dear friend and former salsa teacher, Claudio who happened to be on holiday in Cuba at the same time.

The Famous Malecon Street
We drove to Clarita and Orlando’s House, a casa particular in the famous Malecon street. Casa particular is the Cuban concept of a private home stay where you can experience the real culture and hospitality. It is a much better and economical option than staying in a hotel where Cubans are (by law) not allowed in unless they work there. Casa particulars can be found almost anywhere in Cuba with average prices ranging between $15 to $30 per night.

According to Cuban law, casa particulars must be registered by the government for tourism purposes. To avoid bad surprises, make sure to book an official one as it is illegal for tourists to stay in unregistered houses even if you might be staying with some Cuban friends.

A big shock hit us when we arrived at the casa particular. After thoroughly checking her backpack, Alex realised that all of our cash for Cuba and her credit cards were missing. Wow, we both felt sick in our stomachs and Alex had a nervous breakdown. Cuba is not like any country where you can withdraw money from ATMs, in fact there are next to none. To get money you have to go to special banks or Cadecas and pay high fees. So, the best way to travel in Cuba is to bring enough cash to cover your stay. After losing all that money, we weren't quite sure what to do next.

What had happened? We had no idea! When we called Alex's bank in Australia to cancel the cards, it turned out that her cards had already been used in Mexico. We realised that she got mugged somewhere between Holbox Island and Cancun Airport without even noticing it. It was really hard to come to terms with loss like this as we had lost our entire budget for Cuba. Thankfully, Claudio and Clarita were very supportive and helped us to relax a little bit. We went to a police station in Havana to get a report for our travel insurance. However, we were asked to go to the Mexican Embassy to get a report as the crime did not happen in Cuba. Claudio was very kind and invited us for dinner that night.

Streets of Havana
The next day was a day of bureaucracy. We started by going to the Mexican Embassy to get a police report. After long discussions, we couldn't get one as they wanted us to pay for creating it. We were very disappointed and frustrated. Our next stop was the French Embassy, which was not very helpful either. After spending half a day running around embassies without any results, we decided to find a place where we could get some cash using my cards.

We exchanged the last American dollars I had with me. It is not a good idea to bring American dollars to Cuba as they charge an extra 20 percent fee but we had no other option. We also managed to get some cash from a nearby Cadeca after waiting for an hour. So we were good until we get to Santiago where Alex’s brother lives.

At night, we went to "La Casa de la Musica" with Claudio where some of the best Cuban musicians perform. The uplifting music and dance performances from NG La Banda helped us to forget our troubles for a little while. It was a great night of salsa, dance, and joy.

Salsa Band
Cuba is probably the worst country if you need to use the internet or make international calls which we desperately needed at the time to deal with the banks and insurance companies. An hour of internet is $5 and we had to pay $3 per minute for international calls. It was a big hassle to deal with all that which certainly put some extra pressure on our already fragile relationship. We had some more serious fights and I wasn't quite sure if our relation would continue.

I also got quite sick in Havana. I had a burning fever and felt very weak for 2 days which meant bed rest. I felt tired, lost, and concerned about my relationship. One afternoon, I was looking out of the window towards Malecon Street and the Caribbean Sea, a feeling of gratitude came over me to be in Cuba. Although we were going through hard times, people all around were very helpful and supportive. Clarita was trying her best to cheer us up. A random taxi driver who drove us to the Mexican Embassy, refused to take money after hearing our story of mugging. Claudio was there for us when we needed him. These acts of kindness really touched me and it felt so good to have that support. This reminded me, once again, the importance of helping others when they are in need.

It was my first experience of being mugged. It was a challenging experience to deal with and my dominant feelings were anger and helplessness. On the other hand, it provided us with an understanding that no matter what happens, life still goes on and we always get by somehow. There is always a solution or help from unexpected sources. Here, I want to acknowledge the big hearts of Cuban people and thank them for their generosity. They have very little to survive on but they were always ready to help us with our struggles.         

Havana Cathedral

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