A Strange Introduction to Havana

“I hope we come away from Havana with some good stories,” I eagerly said to Mike as our bus pulled away from the airport.

I was excited to be in Cuba, a country I was very curious about, and especially enthusiastic about visiting Havana, the lively capital city. I didn’t want to have a superficial experience in Cuba- I wanted to go beyond the beautiful beaches, delve deep and learn about the country and its people. I was hoping to mingle with the locals, since I’d heard they were so friendly, have some chats and return home with a more complete understanding of the country.

Less than five minutes after setting foot outside our hotel, my wish came true.

travelyesplease.com | A Strange Introduction to Havana

It was almost midnight and we had just settled into our hotel. Our room overlooked the Malecón, a seven kilometre long seafront promenade, popular with romantic young couples. We decided to go and take a quick look at the ocean waves crashing up against the wall before we went to bed.

There was no one else around on this particular stretch of the Malecón, and it was shrouded in darkness since the street lights were out. Mike and I stood with our backs to the road, looking out into the infinite blackness of the ocean.

All of a sudden a man appeared out of nowhere with a basket of flowers, wanting us to buy. We got a little startled because it was so unexpected, but politely declined and the man walked away, no problems.

travelyesplease.com | A Strange Introduction to Havana

Again, we turned back to the ocean, laughing about how that guy just showed up out of nowhere and gave us a good scare. Thirty seconds later, I hear a car stop and out jump two guys carrying guitars.

“Oh great…here we go,” I laughed.

“Hola! Where are you from?” one of the men asked.

“Canada,” Mike replied.

“Ah, Canada. So many Canadians come to Cuba. Why do you all want to come to a Socialist country?” he questioned.

“Because it’s beautiful,” Mike answered.

“Yes, Cuba is very beautiful, but the government is not,” he asserted.

travelyesplease.com | A Strange Introduction to Havana

We then continued to have quite the interesting conversation with this man, who spoke near perfect English. He told us he learned English at University, which is provided for free by the government.

“You have to pass a really hard test to get into University,” he told us, “but even though you graduate, there is no future for you here in Cuba.”

That statement stuck with us and we saw evidence of this over and over again during our time in Havana. We met many locals, who were University educated but not able to work in their chosen field. Either there were no jobs, or they could make more money from tips, plus get gifts from travellers, by working in the tourism industry.

One afternoon we took a ride in a Cocotaxi, a yellow, egg-shaped, three-seat scooter, and our driver turned out to be a power engineer. When we got to talking with him, you could tell he was disappointed that he was driving a cab. He was a very nice man and I could sense that he wanted to do so much more with his life, but circumstances prevented that.

travelyesplease.com | A Strange Introduction to Havana

Back at the Malecón, our new amigo continued to ask us questions.

“Are you staying in Havana?”

“Yes. For three nights then we go to Varadero.”

“So many people just go to Varadero for the beach. But that’s not real Cuba. This is real Cuba.”

As we continued to talk, you could tell he was genuinely thankful that we chose to stay in Havana. Cubans have a lot of pride in their culture and are eager to share that with visitors. Considering how little many Cubans have, not only in terms of modern comforts and luxuries, but personal freedoms as well, the fact that they are able to remain proud and spirited about their culture is very admirable.

travelyesplease.com | A Strange Introduction to Havana

This man continued to tell us stories about what life was like in Cuba. He told us how the government has made it very difficult for Cubans to travel, how you have to serve two years in the military, but if you are in University, you only have to serve one. He asked us what the police were like in Canada and said, “The policeman here are slow, stupid, because they are just brainwashed by the government, like robots.” Then amusingly he added, “And they have trouble getting girls.”

“But don’t worry, Cuba is very safe,” he assured us. This is something that we would hear a lot from the locals during our trip. It really is true though- not once did I feel unsafe in Cuba, even though we landed in some situations that I would usually avoid and advise against (read about how we got hustled and hassled in Havana).

travelyesplease.com | A Strange Introduction to Havana

Sometime during this discussion a third man showed up with a set of bongo drums and a fourth guy, who didn’t have any instruments, but oddly hung around the group.

Finally the men decided to play us a song. Partway through the first verse of Stand by Me, I hear a screeching sound and see a bright flash of light. I turn in time to see a classic American car skid into a spin, sparks flying off the pavement. The car was sliding towards us when all of a sudden the front wheel fell off and went bouncing across the street! The passengers quickly jumped out and ran over to the Malecón, where they were safe from the passing traffic who would almost hit the broken down car, hidden by the darkness.

“Don’t worry, the cops will be here soon. There’s a camera right there, and over there, and over there,” he said as he pointed all around us. I guess that’s why Cuba is safe- there is always someone watching!

travelyesplease.com | A Strange Introduction to Havana

Sure enough a cop showed up, we think on foot because there were no sirens or flashing lights, and assisted with the situation. I saw someone crawl under the car and try to fix it, which was complete madness! There were no hazard lights or pylons put out, plus the road was in almost complete darkness. Cars were speeding by, swerving at the last minute, making sure to honk as they whizzed past.

Mike wanted to get the heck out of there, worried he was going to see someone get ran over. Our new friends didn’t seem too concerned, so I danced along while they played an upbeat Spanish song I recognized.

After our private street concert, we decided to get back to the hotel before anything else crazy happened. We gave them a small tip, they welcomed us to Cuba, and we went our separate ways.

“That was so much fun!” I exclaimed as we ran across the street. “Havana is crazy!”

That night as I lay in bed, I couldn’t wait to see what Havana had in store for us. I was excited to explore this spirited city, meet more of the locals, and continue to learn about life in Cuba. Little did I know, tomorrow my enthusiasm for Havana would begin to drain right out of me.

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  • Margaret - Wow this is great and I can’t wait to read the rest. I have always wanted to go to CubaApril 14, 2014 – 9:37 amReplyCancel

    • Rhonda Krause - Thanks! Cuba is a great country and we could definitely see ourselves going back one day.April 14, 2014 – 9:43 amReplyCancel

  • Will Castillo - Hi Rhonda, glad to see you made it out of there alive :) j/k
    Cuba is beautiful but after being there 4 times I think I’m going to lay off of it for a while. I think it’s because every time I go I meet some of the warmest people but with such sad stories, and they break my heart, and there’s not much I can do to help them. I feel content every time I hear about a Cuban that gets to leave to a better place. Looking fwd to reading what happened the next day.April 14, 2014 – 5:19 pmReplyCancel

    • Rhonda Krause - I understand what you mean, Will. The people were absolutely wonderful and seemed to be making the best of a difficult situation, but we could definitely sense a sadness, a longing for more. We wanted to help (and helped as much as we could), but there was only so much we could do.April 14, 2014 – 5:59 pmReplyCancel

  • Lesley Peterson - Wow–what an introduction to Cuba! Havana really does assault on all senses, crowded and historically the most Americanized part of Cuba. Life is a lot harder for Cubans who live in apartment buildings and on housing estates. Life in rural areas is much different. I’ve been to many parts of Cuba, lately most often to the musical mecca of Santiago de Cuba, at the opposite end of the island from Havana. Much different vibe from Havana. Transportation is one of the island’s (and people’s) biggest challenges. Ttravelers interested in the vintage cars should check out the car museums. There’s an eyepopping open-air car museum outside Santiago de Cuba and I’ve heard there’s another one in Havana. April 14, 2014 – 9:03 pmReplyCancel

  • Dennis Kopp - Rhonda, thank you for the little introduction to Havana! The photos look beautiful and it seems as if you had already quite an eventful first evening. Cuba is a place that has long been on my travel list, but having worked in the US on a visa for many years, I never dared to go. Hopefully I will be able to go soon and experience some of the time travel back into the 50s for myself… :)April 16, 2014 – 5:21 amReplyCancel

    • Rhonda Krause - We did meet a group of Americans while we were in Havana. They flew in from Mexico City, I believe, and just asked the officials not to have their passport stamped. It’s a way around the system I guess, but I’m not sure if it’s a risk I would personally be comfortable taking. However, there was one guy in the group whose passport got stamped. I hope he didn’t encounter any trouble going back to the U.S.!April 16, 2014 – 10:29 pmReplyCancel

  • Will Castillo - If he got his passport stamped 100% sure he got a $10,000 fine + possibly jail time. Is it worth it? Def Not!April 16, 2014 – 10:36 pmReplyCancel

    • Rhonda Krause - Wow! That is a huge fine. You’re right- definitely not worth it.April 16, 2014 – 10:40 pmReplyCancel

  • Shikha (whywasteannualleave) - I also really want to see havana and varadero one day and this is a fascinating story about how you were introduced to cuba – I’ve had friends who have had similar experiences in Havana so am intrigued to go!April 21, 2014 – 3:21 amReplyCancel

  • Jennifer - We’d really like to visit Cuba, especially before all the tourists really start to arrive and things change. I’m already hearing about more and more people going to Cuba. It’s the old cars, the way of life, and time sort of standing still there that interest me so much.May 9, 2014 – 2:14 pmReplyCancel

    • Rhonda Krause - Canadians have always loved visiting Cuba, since it’s not too long of a flight and things are pretty affordable. It is becoming more and more popular, but from what we saw, most of the people stick to the resorts at Varadero and do day trips to Havana. Tourism is already leaving it’s mark on Havana. It was kind of a shame to see the road along the coast lined with endless tour buses. And then of course, with tourism comes the touts. This was an issue in the Old Town, but not really anywhere else in Havana. I loved the classic cars everywhere and it does feel like you have stepped back in time. I know so many people who after they visit Cuba once, keep returning again and again!May 9, 2014 – 4:33 pmReplyCancel

  • Carmen Edelson - Havana is a great town, especially old Havana. Locals are always very friendly and will approach you in hope for some money in exchange. They are very appreciated when do you give them money. I disagree with the statement the guy told you that “Havana” is the real Cuba. Havana has become very flooded with tourist. In order to see the real Cuba you need to go to towns like Placetas, where people get around only on old cars, tractors, and horse drawn carriages. The town is 1/2 hour from Santa Clara. Great post!!May 15, 2014 – 12:01 pmReplyCancel

    • Rhonda Krause - Thanks, Carmen! I also thought that tourism had made its mark on Havana, but it still is more authentic than Varadero (which I assume is what he was comparing it to). On our way to Trinidad we passed through many towns like you just described…now that was “real” Cuba!May 15, 2014 – 4:54 pmReplyCancel

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