Disclaimer: First and most crucial statement. Information/images I'm about to present is my own opinion and/or thoughts. I haven't double checked facts, so there may be some untruths. From my perspective, everything is fairly correct. Take it as is. Also, I'm not a writer, so be wary of long tangents/grammatical mistakes and my train of thought changing willy nilly. I'm also going to give information/perspective on things in the order I personally learned.
Any story or adventure needs an intro or back story, so let's start there. Once upon a time...
A few weeks back while having a good ol' fashioned grillfest at my brother's house, a fellow Dan came on over. While we (other folk around as well) were talking about travels, Dan mentions that he'll be going to Cuba in 3 weeks. Badly paraphrased:
Dan 1: "Oh I'm going to Cuba soon..."
Dan 2 (Me): "Oh yeah? I'm coming too" <--- sarcastic toned.
Dan 1: "Yeah, I'm going with a couple. I'm sure you could come. Do you want to?"
---------------Just became serious--------------------
Dan 2: "Ahh, yeah. For real? When and how long? The other 2 are really ok with a stranger?"
Dan 1: "Yeah, we're definitely going. For real. Come along!"
Brother: "Dan 1, you better watch out. He really does do these trips..."
Dan 2: "Yeah, sky miles. I'll absolutely really be there..."
Some time passes, I ask if Dan was serious, and found out he'd already spoke with the couple. They were utilizing AirBnB (Cuba has AirBnb, btw), and 3 of the 4 beds were going to be occupied. There's my in! I start booking the ticket through JetBlue out of Orlando. Very inexpensive, and only an hour and a half flight. More winning!
Tangent 1. I don't know spanish. At all. My grandpa spoke fluently, and apparently didn't learn English until he joined the US military around 18. My parents knew a bit, but the most I retained from them was "Una mas cerveza, por favor". I'm also a fan of latin music, and will sing along phonetically, but really have no idea what the songs are about. I'm 32 currently, and the random words we learned in elementary school also never stuck. I've been to Barcelona - but my main method of communication was doing "dumb face" (the face you make when you want to portray that you're not threatening, but also very confused by the current situation) and pointing to things. Also using the few words I know in French as a middle ground. It actually worked surprisingly well, as they knew more English than I do of Spanish/French. Oh well, back to my current situation. At this point I have 5 days to learn a passable amount of a foreign language, for a worst case scenario situation. Thanks Duolingo! (Highly useful and free app, download if you haven't)
Fast forward a few days, it's now the day before I leave for Cuba with Dan and 2 strangers. (The 2 strangers. One also a Dan, the other an Andrea. (Andrea, if you're reading this, sorry you didn't get a name in the title. It just doesn't sound right) I could start another tangent about small world coincidences, but I'll save you, dear reader... this time). The flight leaves in the morning around 8 something, so the plan is to leave at 4:45am at the latest (international travel, Orlando lines, and a 2 hour drive). That day around 10pm I finally pack up and force myself asleep around midnight. 4 hour nap, and it's time to go!
Well, I set my alarm (3:45am) the few hours before, but that's not what I awake too. Fortunately my roomates were still awake so someone shuffling around in the kitchen gets me up. I check my phone, it's 4:30!!! I'm late! My deliriously sleepy brain is convinced I missed the trip. I start texting, "Are you there?? Go without me! I'm leaving now, see you there!" and quickly scramble out the door, hop in the car, and go as fast as safely possible to Orlando (I'm terrified of speeding tickets, so my fast honestly is kind of slow).
I arrive at the airport parking lot literally 30 seconds behind my traveling crew, and all works out... so far. I'm just running on no sleep and nervous energy. No biggie.
We board the jet, and prepare for Cuba!! This is happening! Up until now, it's been in the back of my mind, but the realization never really set in. I have so many questions, concerns, and curiosities. Are the people friendly? Am I going to get separated from my crew, and then what? Are there really old cars everywhere? Is Desi Arnaz really from Cuba?
(Fast forward if you don't actually want to know anything about Cuba)
Tangent 2: As much as I know of Spanish, that's about 7000% more than I know about Cuba. Fortunately, I download a "travel like locals" book about the place, and used my hour to both learn about Cuba and fill out my customs form. I ended up consulting this book quite a bit over the trip, and tried my damndest to confirm fun facts, but again. Take all info with a grain of salt. The book started by saying, "before you can learn about the culture, you need to know a little of the history and the relationship with the United States". So, if you're like me, this is severely valuable because I don't recall learning a damn thing in school about Cuba, and I was a pretty decent student.
Tangent continued, the abridged history. Back in the day, Cuba was ruled by a dictator named Batista. Along with Batista, there was also a massive disparity between the supremely wealthy and everyone else. Quite a few of those wealthy were mobsters or wealthy Americans like Mr. Hemingway. At this time, we (USA) got along well enough with Cuba, and somehow made money and had land from/over there. I assume this is right before "I love Lucy" starts.
Enter Che/Fidel. That large disparity of wealth and other situations (that I'm not aware of) pissed off the majority of the country, so they revolted. After many tries, the people won and put their leader/friend Fidel Castro in charge. The newly formed government redistributed all wealth/houses/cars/etc. to all the people, severely helping out those on the lower end of the monetary spectrum the most. I'm not sure when, but this also eventually covered their healthcare/college/etc. Also, with that move they said the USA no longer owned anything in Cuba, and they were no longer going to give us any cashflow. So, we enacted sanctions. I guess over the years, money/power corrupts and relations soured further. At some point the Russians came in as a helping hand (more on that later), but also enter the "Cuban Missile Crisis" - but unfortunately I wasn't alive, and the book told nada of it. End of history tangent.
Day 1, Cuba.
We've arrived!. We pass through through customs and negotiate a taxi. Not a classic taxi, but the normal everyday taxi. The first mentioned Dan knows the most Spanish, so we sit him up front with the driver to be social, but also to make sure we're heading in the right direction.
Still delirious at this point, but I take in as much as possible from the ride. Classic Cuban music is our soundtrack (think in terms of Buena Vista Social Club, and you're mostly there) as we ride through lush but empty farm fields. Folks riding carts pulled by donkeys, bicycles, walkers. We pass through a few checkpoints, and make it towards the city.
We're dropped off at our new casa. Already the city is beautiful (and I don't particularly like cities). The vibrant colors, classic cars, hints of dilapidation of a well worn city are selling the experience very well for me. Our abode is 6 floors up, and I can tell we'll be overlooking the ocean. More wins. The Dan/Andrea did a fantastic job researching a great place to sleep.
We go upstairs and meet our hosts, Adis and Felix Diaz. Professionally they're doctors and professors. They'll also be our neighbors for the next few days, and offer to help us out with anything we could possibly use. They let us know a few areas in town for lunch, breakfast, where to find internet (never did), and get coffee. All is fantastic!
We're all tired and hungry at this point, so we decide it's time for lunch at the closest place our hosts recommended. We walk. Along the way, the city walls are painted every color you'd see on a classic longboard or sailboat. Light blues, yellows, tans are most prevalent. Paint gives way to the bricks who defy time and the ocean. Tiny details and textures everywhere that'd I'd love to just stop and stare, but we're on the move. The restaurant has an English menu, and the staff seems to be fairly knowledgeable of English too. Convenient, but also alarming (tourist friendly is not our goal).
We all order something different (to share), plus an appetizer for the table. We get seafood, pork, beef, chicken and a bread. Everyone drinks a cerveza or two. We find out nobody has dietary restrictions and politically everyone is on the same page (with the current climate, it makes life so much easier). Things are going well, the 2 strangers are no longer strangers. After finishing, the bill comes. It's a little over $100 bucks. For 4 people with food/drinks, that's really not bad, but we're going to have to plan a little better in the future.
Tangent 3 - Exchange rate. The embargo is still in effect, so the US dollar can not be used anywhere in Cuba. No credit cards, no cash. You exchange your dollars for 2 types of currency. CUC and CUP. At the time I went, the CUC traded about 1 for $1, but you lose 10% immediately to a tax in the exchange. A CUP is about 1/25th of a CUC. More on this later, but for sake of convenience any mention of price is actually in CUC, which again is about a dollar.
For that future planning, we decide grocery shopping is the next order of business. Letting Dan 1 be the translator, we ask for directions to the nearest. A few blocks of busy intersections later, we arrive. I'd heard from folk back home that due to the massive influx of tourists, that Cuba is literally running low on food. Looking at the grocery store, this seems to be true. Very little fresh food is available, and the canned/boxed stuff is just as slim. Deciding that we must be in a busy part, we leave, and find another store. A few more blocks down the road (past all those so sexy "classic" US cars that Cuba is famous for, all the colors, all the textures, and tons of people from many nationalities. I'm still delirious, but on sensory overload. I can't even.) Disclaimer, my first day in any unfamiliar place, I never bring a camera. I prefer to use my own eyeballs, and to get an idea of safety. Also, further updates on this story will be more photo laden. These images are mostly from cellular. As we walk into the second grocery store, the situation is even more dire. There is absolutely nothing to purchase, and 100 other people trying to shop as well. No go. However, I did buy 2 bottles of fancy Cuban rum for about $12 dollars total. Things are still going well.
We go back home, but at this point I'm a zombie. I fall asleep with the balcony door open, listening to the hustle/bustle of city life with a light breeze. Very nice. However, the other 3 are aware of a cultural thing, where basically all locals walk down to the water for the sunset. You bring a drink (you can drink in the streets there), and just go talk to people. You just go talk to people, in person. Talking in person. So weird....
Shoot. Story jump, I woke up, made a rum and coke (Cuba Libre, btw), and we walked on down. The setting sun was perfect. The city lights up, the sun takes a nap. Both with equal timing, and equal luminosity. Dan 1 is beyond excited to meet some strangers and practice Spanish, which happens very quickly.
Photo above: Dan 3/Andrea (Dandrea) witih strangers (Reiniel/Lais) in the background. Second photo above, Dandrea and Dan 1 becoming friends with Reiniel.
Dan 1 took no time in talking to everyone he saw. Stranger walking by? "Hola". Family with children? "Hola". While sitting on the seawall, Dan found 2 more strangers. We were fortunate to meet them. Lais is a student, working towards a position aboard an Italian cruise ship. She also takes English lessons at school and was very eager to practice. Reiniel had recently moved back to Cuba from Germany (after something like 8 years?), where he played baseball and served somewhat as the international team's translator, and is currently starting a tour company. Needless to say his English was as good as any of ours. Also, knowing other countries systems and politics, it made it much easier to ask questions regarding the very little we knew of Cuba.
A drink or two later, and we all went back to our temporary abode. We learned a bit more about them, and vice versa. A few more drinks, and questions of occupation, government, history, and current political situations came up. They were both very forthcoming (I'll expand in further Tangents) and accommodating to everything we asked. Big or small. The condensed version, Cubans love Cuba. They're very proud (and rightly so) of their country, but aware there are some areas that can be improved, and believe the current administration is already leading in that direction. I again, had very little knowledge before the trip of this country, but in just a few hours a lot made sense.
However, we didn't go to Cuba to sit in an apartment, so it was time to go downtown. They showed us around to one of the main squares. We drank, we ate, we laughed. I picked up a few colorful phrases in Spanish as well as some a bit more crucial. Local musicians played my favorite Buena Vista Social Club song, and of course Guantanamera. Absolutely perfect. However, it's not an adventure until there's an adventure. And we had one.
After awhile, Dandrea (no naps) were a little tired and left for home. Dan 1 and I stayed with our new friends, continued the drinks. Fresh mojitos, $3. Cuba Libre? $3. All top shelf rum. All perfectly mixed. Also, we're in Cuba! Reiniel offers to show us around in the morning, show us the "true" Cuba, "but tonight we relax". Seeing some of the touristy things, but more importantly showing us the things he found important. Still, something wasn't right. It occurred to Dan and I, that we didn't have keys to get into our building, and it was about time to go home and find a way in. Our new friends escorted us.
We work our way back to the apartment. Lais and I stand near the ground floor outer door, hoping someone randomly opens and we can sneak in. Dan and Reiniel go out to the street side, hollering up at Dandrea to let us in. No go.
At this point, it's starting to rain, and the night salesman are getting a little aggressive. Reiniel gathers us, "If you guys would like, I have a place you can sleep. There are 2 twin beds, just a 20 minute cab ride away".
Tangent 4 - I love horror movies. Absolutely love them. I've seen way too many. I also know that every tourist horror movie starts this way. Friendly strangers offer far too friendly options right off the bat. Based on movie knowledge if we do this, there's an 80% chance Dan and I are waking in a bathtub minus a few organs.
I turn to Dan.
Myself: "Are we doing this?"
Dan: "We might wake up in a bathtub, but at least we'll sleep. Plus, we're seeing real Cuba. I'm in."
Myself: "All I needed, let's go!."
To be continued...