Cuba was such a “mission impossible” for me! I am not talking about distance or price. I mean visa issue. This was the only time I screw up before the trip. In other words, this is a story about risking, lying to the customs and finding out illegal part of Cuba.
I got to know about our trip to Cuba (!!) in the most appropriate place – in La Bodegita del Medio in Kiev. Together with my boyfriend, who presented me flight tickets, we approoved our plans in the wall, as the restaurant suggests. It was in summer. We had to fly in winter. And guess what, I decided to check whether I need visa only 14 hours before our flight. Tadam!! Unlike my boyfriend, I needed that official permission for entering the Island of Liberty! Oops, I swear that I never felt so stupid.
A long list of attemps followed. First we run to Cuban embassy in Kiev in the very morning. But of course noone worked on 31 of December, so did Ukrainian embassy in Cuba. I was surprised that in Ministry of Foreign Affairs someone answered. They prooved that I can’t enter Cuba without visa, only Chernobyl victims have that privilege (you need medical papers to proove that) and those who want to improve health. I was out of those category. But we decided to risk and at least celebrate New Year in Paris, where we had 1 day stop.
Before you start jealous me, I assure you that we didn’t have the best times in Paris. All my thoughts was busy with how to enter Cuba without visa. In Kiev’ airport they barely let me in to France, but we lied that my doctor is waiting for me in Cuba. The first thing we did the next morning in Paris was trying to find any hospital at 6 a.m. Now I see how weird it was to bribe French doctor, but than it was a despaired attemp. Any of medical sertificate, saying that visit to Cuba can improve my health, could help. But obviously noone wanted to be a part of our game.
Still we didn’t give up and went to the airport. I even sticked a metal badge with Lenin to my T-shirt in case socialistic sign melt hearts of Cuban customs. But before we had to deal with French officers. They told me that even by some weird reason an officer let me in the plane without a visa, he will be panished with 30 000 euro penalty. And I must be deported. Only 1,5 hour left before the flight, but we still didn’t check in. My boyfriend asked every agency in Charles de Gaulle Airport whether they sell visas to Cuba. Sounds strange. I think I started to believe in Xmas miracles again, as in one of them a lady with bored voice told ”yes, we do”. Thanks God I can hide my emotions, otherwise I would hug her till the death. That visa was a piece of paper, where they put all stamps. In the end you don’t have a proove you were in Cuba. That is convenient for Americans, who are actually not allowed to enter Cuba.
Havana didn’t meet us as I was imagined: there was no chicas, dancing salsa in the airport, noone offered cigarettes or rum. The customs worked so slow, that I could read the whole book of Tolstoy’s ”The war and the peace”. Than they checked everyone’s luggage for drugs: slowly and with hope to catch a smuggler. But I was impressed even more, when entered the toilet. Surprise, surprise – there was a toilet paper! But at the exis some Cuban lady asked me to pay. For public toilet? Luckily I left money and bag. In the end she was bagging to give her at least my used lipstick!
It was already a late night when we reached Havana. We decided not to waste money for overprised hotels, but stay at locals. I contacted people by couchsurfing and Alex (I will not reveal his real name) promised to help with accomodation. You probably know that it is officially forbidden to host foreigners in Cuba, unless it is ”casa particular”. In such case owners can provide rooms for tourist, paying extremely hight amount for goverment’ permission. We got a small room in the cener of Havana for 30$ per day. Imagine, that owners pay about 200-300 $ per month for the licence, when cubans barely own 5 $ on state jobs! That is why owners tries to earn more by offerening tabacco, rum or simply food.
We stayed at small appartment of typical 3 generation family: hard-working Teresa, who raises her son without a father, her mother that sits in front of TV, boasting with a forbidden satellite, while father is somewhere around, but invisiable. It was a lovely experience in hospitable family. We had a tiny beathroom with primitive shower without hot water. During all our trip (2 weeks) this was the most hospitable family.
The first morning was a torture. Due to the jet lag it was absolutely difficult to wake up. Teresa introduced us to our first Cuban meal – it was broad beans. Than Alex came to be our guide for a day. Before the flight he asked us to buy diapers for his small child. Later I realized that noone here is your friend if there is no use. Someone wait for you to buy a coctail or invite to the discoteque.
Alex warned us that in Havana there are a lot of ”jineteras” – bed people who hunt for tourists and sell counterfeit goods or propose sex. But while we were with Alex, noone came to us. Only police – they wrote down the passport data of our ”local guide”. It is still not very welcome to communicate with foreigners. The same as it is not welcome for us, tourists, to enter places for locals and pay with local money, pesos. We should use CUC (convertible money) that 24 times more expensive than peso. But while Alex was with us noone dared to ask us to pay with CUC. We drunk our first cup of a great cuban coffee, like locals.
Alex showed us first the copy of American Capitol. Cuban El Capitolio was the seat of government till the Revolution and now it’s closed to the public. It is surrounded by yellow coco-taxi and colourful old cars. Those are the reason for thousands of people to come to Cuba. How can you dislike Havana when you see those retro vehicles, painted dozen of times in the most extravagant colours?
You don’t need to be a good photographer to make estonishing pictures of Havana. It is so photogenic, that you can only press the button of your camera. Old dilapidated colonial houses of Havana Vieja and beautiful plazas are my favourite part of the capital. Also Malekon – 8 km long stretch of a waterfront, that protect the city from a heavy storm. Such happens from time to time and we were witnesses.
The next day we faced jineteras, found out why they protect Granma so much and where locals actually dance salsa. We learnt how to prepare the legendary mojito and were almost bitten at local restaurant. All this and much more you will read in the next post.