A day late but I make it to Havana.
HAVANA, Cuba- When the immigration agent scanned my passport and looked at his computer screen his opened wide and his jaw dropped.
Never a good sign.
Something came up on there that he wasn’t expecting. He called over another agent and she handed me my passport back and told me to stand back. Not good.
While it’s completely normal for Americans to go to Cuba there’s still something in the back of your mind telling you … uh, maybe not.
I watched as they were discussing something on the computer in serious tones, glancing from each to the screen and back again. I prepared for going to tier two — the back room, the one place that no traveler wants to be.
But as the agents keep talking it became more and more evident that their problem may not have been with me, but with their computer. If they were going to can me they would have done it by now. The longer I stood there the more probably more the latter scenario became, until finally they called me back up, apologized, and stamped my passport without a question and hardly a glance.
Their computer broke.
Welcome to Cuba.
Getting money in Cuba
It used to be tricky getting money in Cuba as they used to have a currency just for foreigners, but these days are no more. Everyone uses the same cash here. The only thing was that for me, an American, my ATM card wouldn’t work, so I had to come stocked with enough dollars and euros to last out my stay.
The best way to do this is to look for an informal money changer in the street — outside of tourist hotels and in markets, ask around for their rates, and select the guy giving the best rate. But I was just coming into the country and I wanted a little local cash so I could just dive in for a day or so.
So I waited in line at the money exchange booth at the airport. They used to give the official exchange rate — which is ridiculously low — but now they give somewhere between the official rate and the street rate. You still get hosed, but you’re paying for the connivence of not having to track down a tout your first moments in a country. (But I wouldn’t do it like this again).
Even the guy at the official exchange counter thought I was being dumb for using his service. He kind of rolled his eyes at me when I told him that I wanted to exchange $100. Then, acting as if he was talking to a two-year-old, he pulled out a scrap of paper and wrote two numbers onto it: one was the rate that he would pay and the other was the rate that some lady that he pointed to over my shoulder would pay. He went back and forth between the two rates, speaking slowly that one was better than the other. The second rate was higher, but not enough to make me complicate the process. I remained on course, probably leaving the guy with the impression that foreigners must be really dumb people.
Getting a SIM card
Having a little local cash on me I then went and got a local sim card from an office in the small commercial center across the drop off lane from the airport. The cost was so insignificant it wasn’t worth recording. Cell plans are dirt cheap everywhere outside of the US — unless you’re being scammed in Beirut.
Getting a taxi
Now it was time to complete the triumvirate of travel tasks when arriving in a new place: local currency, SIM card, taxi. Selecting taxi drivers out of a lineup when you know they’re all charging the same prices is really a question of who you’d prefer to sit in a car with. I had the choice of an old dude and a young, slick looking white dude. The white dude was dressed the sharpest with gelled back hair and sunglasses. He seemed like he had something to talk about.
We got into his car — which was normal looking, Russian-made, and probably from the early 2000s — and began rumbling towards town. Riding into Havana for the first time is one of those surreal moments in travel — kind of like riding into Calcutta or Tegucigalpa. It’s a parade of the unexpected — all types of vehicular contraptions from the complete timeline of transportation history just piled out on the roads. There were horses and buggies, Model-Ts, 1950s-era classics, 1980-2000s era Soviet cars … Everything except cars from the era we actually live in.
I knew then that this would be a theme of my travels here.
Beyond that, the ride was a montage of empty fields, shoddily constructed cinderblock houses, people walking on the side of the road carrying stuff. The driver began talking about Cuban girls and I knew where he was going with that.
I don’t know what I was expecting when I came to Havana. I don’t read travel blogs. I don’t read travel writing. I don’t really research places unless relevant for a project. My first time in a place I prefer to just show up and find what there is. But for some reason I thought Cuba was going to be way different than what it is …
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