It's around midnight somewhere in Havana. There's a pop! sound and our peso taxi lurches to a halt on the side of the freeway, listing from a rear flat tire. As the driver struggles to fix it, Cindy and two Cuban strangers riding with us start to dance in the dark to the salsa music blaring out of the cab's stereo. The occasional light of passing motorists briefly illuminates us and the water of the bay to our right. They keep dancing, because what else can you do?
After having heard from other people about how great Cuba is, Cindy and I decided to go for it this year, despite (or because of) the criminal nature of our undertaking. It was surprisingly easy to get there. The trick is getting out of Cuba, as any Cuban knows.
Havana was a riot of husslers, pollution, noise and incredible August heat. Haba¤eros are incredibly proud of their city, extolling its friendliness and history and culture. When we asked them where we should go outside of Havana several of theme shrugged and said that Havana WAS Cuba and that everything else was a waste of time.
We were less than charmed by the constant barrage of jineteros (husslers) trying to part us from our hard-earned dollars. It seemed like everyone had an angle, from the guy selling you bootleg cigars to the kids asking for candy and the taxis offering to take you to restaurants selling illegal lobster. Someone even asked for Cindy's shirt.
The chief technique for getting your attention seemed to be your nationality. "Where are you from?" was an ever-present question. For me it was simply "Hey, China!" or "Hey, Japan!" And once you said "United States" they would launch into a tale about all their family members in Wyoming, New Jersey and Kentucky.
Havana is an amazing place, from the malecon seawall to Havana Vieja to the Barrio Chino (Chinatown). We heard amazing music everywhere, although mostly in touristy bars and hotels. The museums are world class, especially the Fine Arts Museum, which is worth a whole afternoon strolling through. You can't understand Cuba without spending a significant amount of time there. But just the same we were happy to leave.
After Havana, we did five days in the sleepy city of Cienfuegos and another five days in the cow-town of Vi¤ales. Once out of the capitol city, our enjoyment of our vacation improved immensely - the husslers were gone, the heat was less oppressive and prices were lower.
La Comida Cubana
As we were warned, much of the food you find on the streets is terrible. Most of the fast food in Cuba is a doughy, greasy bread with tasteless cheese on it that they call pizza. Or you can get "hamburgers" made from pork or chicken that actually aren't that bad. One place we ate at served "fritura" sandwiches, which were bland corn fritters served in a roll.
Did I mention that Cubans aren't allowed to eat beef, lobster or shrimp? That's for tourists.
One of our best street food finds was in Cienfuegos. Cindy spied a street vendor sitting behind what looked like an entire roast pig, from snout to curly tail. Ever the intrepid culinary traveller, Cindy had to taste whatever he was selling. It turned out to be the yummiest lechon pork sandwiches we've ever had, made fresh by this teenager who basically dove his bare hands into the roast pig, pulled out several nice pieces of meat, added a bit of crispy skin, and put it all in a roll for us. At 20 cents a sandwich, Cindy and I both devoured two.
I was a big fan of the "cajita" stalls, where they sell little meals in white cardboard boxes. In Havana, our favorite restaurant was a small cajita place in Chinatown that serves up yummy fried rice, fried chicken or porkchops, all crammed into neat boxes for a few cents each. Delicious.
In terms of Cuban street food though, it's really all about ice cream. For a few cents you get a scoop in a cone, a buck gets you half a pint. This is communism, so usually you only get one or two choices. Typically its either vanilla, strawberry or chocolate. We didn't care; it was so refreshing on a hot summer's day.
For the real Cuban food (and Cuban people), you need to stay in a casa. The Cuban government has set up a system of regulated bed and breakfasts all over the country called "casa particulares." Most cost around $15-25 a room, often with a private bath, air conditioning, and linens. They usually offer breakfast for $3 a person, and dinner for $7-10. We stayed in three casas in Cuba, all of which were clean and well-managed.
The breakfast quickly became our favorite part of the day. Our hosts served up every morning a breakfast feast of fresh tropical fruits (mangos, guava, banana, pineapple), fruit shakes, eggs, bread and delicious Cuban coffee. No better way to start the day.
Dinners were even more spectacular. Our favorite casa owner Gricel in Cienfuegos was an amazing cook, serving up delicious fish, chicken and pork dishes, along with rich black and brown beans, a fresh salad, fried plantains and yucca, and other Cuban specialities. You could also order lobster, which was quite a delicacy since Cubans aren't allowed to eat them.
Other than the great food and cheap accommodations, the real reason to stay in a casa is the people. Casa particulares are the easiest ways for foreigners to interact with Cubans in a relaxed setting. We spent several evenings with Gricel sharing stories about our travels, our impressions of Cuba, life in America, and other crazy guests Gricel has had in her house. They often share with you local information and recommendations that you would never find in a guidebook.
Despite what the Haba¤eros claimed, Cuba is far more than just Havana. Riding horses around the countryside of Vi¤ales, hitting the public beach near Cienfuegos, strolling around the historic cobbled square of Trinidad were well worth the short bus trips from Havana. Vi¤ales in particular was incredibly charming, with red-tiled bungalows, livestock wandering around the village, and wonderful hiking, rock-climbing, spelunking, and bike riding all around you. The place has an ineffable charm and beauty to it.
One of our nicest experiences in Cuba was riding around on horseback with a local campesino named Chino who extolled the richness of the earth, the many crops that sprung from it everywhere, the strange mogote limestone hills that encircled the town, and the virtues of country life. "Nobody in Havana works. We work hard in the country, but life out here is better," Chino remarked. You could see his point.
Cindy and I decided that Cuba is probably best enjoyed slightly tipsy. Everyone seems to drink, from morning to night. In Havana all you need is a $3 bottle of rum and you'll instantly have dozens of friends. In the country, you wile away the hours sitting on your front stoop or in front of the local bar nursing a bottle of the national beer and chatting with the rest of the borrachos.
But fighting off the jineteros, stressing about US immigration and Cuban police, in the oppressive August heat was a bit much to take cold sober.
Cuba is a strange and beautiful place, a tropical island trapped in a Cold War communist bubble. Once Fidel dies, it might pop. I feel lucky to have experienced a small piece of it.