cars & cigars

“how did you get to cuba?!” “a plane.”
but seriously, i have been asked so many times how i managed to get to cuba.

in order to go to cuba, you need to have a reason to visit from one of six categories. my reason: the blog.

i haven’t done any extreme traveling since europe, why my blog was born – and this was a perfect opportunity.. being that my mom somehow managed to book $11 flights. i am not one to talk about politics, but best to go now before things get worse.. if you catch my drift.

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first, i need to get this out-of-the-way: my wallet was stolen during our layover in florida. still groggy from my travel day fueled by only two hours of sleep – i set my clutch down while filling out my visa. poof. gone. fort lauderdale is probably the busiest airport i have ever been to in my life. there were people everywhere, shoulder to shoulder.. making it very easy to grab and dash.

luckily, i had my passport and phone in hand – so they only got away with my license, headphones, and a few credit cards. otherwise, i would be blogging about my vacation at disneyworld. so after a few tears, barely making it on the plane (naturally), and literally just getting off the phone with the bank to cancel my cards (before switching to “airplane mode”) – the ride to cuba from fort lauderdale was only 46 minutes.

traveling tips:
1. bring enough cash, they don’t accept credit cards
2. bring enough cash
3. don’t convert $ at the airport
5.  wifi is hard to find and near nonexistent
6. fanny pack (mental note for myself in the future)

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as some of you may heard, or received a frantic message from me, we ran out of cash before our trip was over. with my credit cards stolen and my mom’s debit card blocked by the ATM for suspicious activity in cuba (surprise!) – we were out of luck by the end of our second day. this is why i stress that you bring enough cash. this likely would only happen to me us, though.

we discovered that cubans will take USD and give you change back in CUC (cuban tourist money) and we would have been way better off doing this instead of converting at the airport. a taxi cab driver and our host happily offered to do this with the USD we had left. the airport took an additional $80 from our budget after converting when we arrived, which really made the difference between running out of money or not. my mom brought canadian money in hopes it would help during the conversion process since there’s an additional 10% penalty fee for USD, but.. it didn’t help by much.

so near the end of our second day, we didn’t have a way to call the bank to lift the block and we didn’t have wifi to get ahold of any one immediately. so, we essentially had no money for 2 days.

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with that being said, finding wifi was almost like making a drug deal. you know there is wifi nearby if you’re walking down the street and suddenly see a pack of teenagers on their phones. then, someone will sell you either a card or type in the password for you after you give them money. there was also a stand near a hotel that sold “wifi cards” for 5 CUC, but it was much cheaper to “buy” the password off someone in the street since you can only use the wifi card on one device at a time/areas are limited where they work.

after buying some wifi off a kid in the street, we desperately messaged anybody we could to try to wire us money to havana from the united states. turns out this is kind of illegal due to the high fraud percentages of wired money between the united states and cuba (swiss bank accounts, anyone?). SO, MAKE SURE YOU HAVE ENOUGH CASH.

thankfully, we managed to get some money in the afternoon of our third day. heaven sent, someone was able to wire us enough to make it through the rest of the trip.

i tell this story first because if you end up in cuba, get your wallet stolen, and run out of money.. you may not be as lucky as we were (lack of a better word).

so, THANK YOU to all my friends and family who tried to help us out and were kicked out of western union at walgreens (this happened), laughed at, or denied when trying to help. not to mention i scared lewis to death during his bachelor party weekend.

now that we’re past the negatives of the trip.. cuba is absolutely an amazing country with plenty of culture, friendly people, and an abundance of history. it’s much like going back in time (especially when you can’t access the internet).

what i learned is that cuba is actually super cheap. yeah, yeah.. even though we ran out of money. still, haggle prices. they ask for 10, you offer 5. they say 8, you walk away. they offer 6. don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself, gringo! this is with cab fares and any street shopping. cab rides should be between 1 and 10 CUC while in the area, depending on the mileage. they will say 20, 25, 15.. you say “5”. they will know you’re not messing around. i did get in a little arugment with a cab driver but with persistance, i made a 10 CUC cab ride in to 5.

speaking of “gringos”, it was strange going to the tourist area of the country, near the capitol/old havana. it was much different from staying in vedado, where we were housed. there is a port where cruise ships anchor at and all the tourists from japan, france, canada, etc. will get off and roam. this is why you need to make sure you’re smart about haggling with prices, since tourists like this are key in helping the locals make money. especially in the san jose mercado. make sure you’re not overpaying where you don’t have to.

the one super touristy activity i do recommend: take the habana bus. the habana bus drives around and stops at all the “key” areas with the ability to “hop on, hop off”. it’s a crash course in cuban history and very cheap at 5 or 10 CUC per passenger. this is also the same bus that will stop at central park and allow you to transfer to head to the beach, or la playa, for 5 CUC. cab drivers will ask for 20, 25 CUC and don’t really want to budge since it is quite a drive.

seriously, i could talk about my trip for hours and all the things i saw, but the phrase “a picture speaks a thousand words” is true. i was mesmerized. stray dogs and cats roam the streets as one, children in uniforms walk to school for the day, old cars overpopulated the streets. people everywhere, always. there were not empty sidewalks or streets. there was always a presence.. hanging out the window, sitting on the curb smoking a cigar. there was consistently a woman or man streetside, selling peanuts. a man riding his bicycle with a basket full of freshly baked bread from the market. someone working on their motorcycle, hanging up their laundry to dry. the houses are old, bare minimum – made of stolen signs, graffiti, cardboard. people of many different shades of skin gather and socialize. boys play soccer in the street. i tried to capture as much as i could, but like anything – it’s best to experience it for yourself.

i think we forget how lucky we are on a daily basis. we don’t have to rely on tourists for income. we don’t have to depend on tips from selling toilet paper outside of the public bathroom. we don’t have to sell wifi on the street. we have debit and credit cards. we have air conditioning! our toilets flush! i almost felt invasive in a country where i, as an american, am so privileged and was there for “leisure”. i think we need to remember these things while we travel. cuba is a beautiful place with nothing but friendly, hardworking people.

our host, aledia, was amazing. we stayed in her home as she had a little guest headquarters inside with its own entrance. it was comparable to staying at your favorite grandma’s house for a long weekend. she gave great suggestions on where to go and how to get around. she spoke english and always made sure to greet me with juice (blended ice cubes, banana, and strawberries) and coffee in the morning for mom.

before we left, she kissed my cheek and made sure to tell me i was her friend and if i ever come back, i was more than welcome to stay with her. she said she could show me more of her country and how much more there is to see. that will stick with me forever.

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i was often asked by the friendly people of cuba, “how do you like my country?” “do you enjoy my home?” the answer was and will always be “si”. the people of cuba are so proud of their country, even if they have so little. this country was so much more than old cars and cigars. i am beyond lucky i had the opportunity to go. i hope to return someday.

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(and yes, i got a cigar and cuban sandwich)

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