31st of December 2013
to 3rd of January 2014
I arrived to Havana around 6 in the evening, a very long queue was waiting for us in the airport. After more than an hour, I finally made it to the immigration officer, looking at my unusual passport, she told me to wait on the side. Even you Cuba!
I was the only one among hundreds of passengers, from the most socialist countries to the most imperialist, that was not allowed to enter. After another half hour (by then, I was the only one remaining in the hall), an officer with a higher rank came and started interrogating me in very poor English, he asked about my reasons to come to Cuba and then started looking at my passport again. I told him we are a poor country, we can’t afford fancy passports. And then poked him saying that “my American friend already entered, I didn’t know that you don’t welcome poor countries in Cuba”. At the end, I was only allowed in when I showed my British residence, when he saw the residence, he went back to the first immigration officer and asked her angrily why she’s wasting his time if she knew that I live in Europe. She replied she wasn’t sure what to do as she never saw a passport like that.
I made it to my casa particular (the Cuban equivalent of hostels) around 10 o’clock, just two hours before new year. I went to the casa with a nice taxi driver, we talked about Cuba and Sudan, and I told him that Sudan is embargoed as well by the US, he replied laughing “and who gets to embargo the US”, no one. We passed by many of Havana’s beautiful squares, I saw many portraits of Guevara on the way, but not any for the Castro brothers, unlike what you would expect from a “dictatorship” I thought.
“Casa particulares” are houses belonging to normal Cubans who can get a permission to host foreigners in a room or two in their house. It is one of the few possibilities for private business in Cuba. My casa was in Centro Habana, and it’s a a dorm with each room having four beds. I was warmly welcomed by Julio in the casa, and there were an Argentinian couple and a german girl. I was very tired and jet lagged that I knew I won’t be able to do anything special, I had a quick nap and then woke up just before midnight, and we all celebrated in the simplest of manners in the casa with a delicious meal and a bottle of rum. I then smoked a Cuban cigar on the balcony, watching Cubans on the street, each having their mini party in front of their house doors.
Next day, I started my trip exploring Havana walking around from Centro Habana to Habana vieja. The roads looked like Cairo’s alleys except they were cleaner and had some air of freedom. The houses are old and most cars are from pre revolution. I walked around Habana vieja, from the capitolio to Obispo, saw a couple of Hemingway’s favorite spots. The streets are full of shops, music and tourists. Most of the locals (at least the ones who approach you, I learned afterwards) are hustlers who want to rip tourists off some money. I had an advantage that, if I don’t have my camera or Lonely Planet guide out, then no one recognized am not a Cuban. As for the hustling, I expected that from a poor country, the same happens in Egypt so I claimed I knew most of the tricks and wouldn’t fall easily for them.
I kept walking around until the malecon, the street on the coast side, and I walked around it for hours, talking to many people who approached me on the way, most of them were hustlers or prostitutes, I talk with them then when it’s time to seal a deal, I apologize that am a poor tourist from a poor country. I finally went and had dinner in a very chique restaurant only visited by first world tourists, like me.
In the casa, I got to know a Swedish couple, Lisa and Erik, and a german girl called Miriam. We decided to go to one of Havana’s beaches the next day. I love the sea but I can’t swim. And although this beach and Havana’s beaches in general are considered mediocre in Cuba’s standards, it was still one of the most beautiful beaches I saw. The water was clear and warm, and I could walk for tens of meters before the water reaches my waist. We spent a beautiful day, ate at an Italian restaurant that we were told it has the best pizza in Havana, and it didn’t disappoint. Miriam gave me a swimming lesson (the first of many in Cuba) that day. At the end of the day, Miriam and me went back together, the Swedish couple went back earlier, and as we couldn’t find a taxi, we decided to take the local bus. The ticket for the bus was less than 1 cent (in CUC, one of Cuba’s two currencies), while we paid 10 CUC for the taxi on the way to the beach! I realized then that this bus ride is probably my first Cuban experience in two days in Havana.
The third day in Havana, I spent it going to the must-see touristy places, plaza de la revolucion and walking on the malecon of course. And Miriam and I, decided that we will take the old electric train to Matanzas the next day. And this is when my trip really started.