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HavanaJournal.com: Cuba Travel

The Cuban Hustle - A couple days in Habana

Posted May 23, 2007 by publisher in Cuba Travel.
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Dan Farkas

The route from the airport to downtown La Habana is fully operated by the government. The tourist are first forced to exchange their pocket money for Cuban Convertibles (CUC) for rates dictated by everything else but free currency markets. I was exchanging from British Pounds and received 1.8CUC for 1GBP (if I went for dollars, I’d have to pay 10% commission for showing up with this unfriendly currency). The first attack at our wallets happened right at the taxi pick ups where agents squeeze foreigners into government taxis charging 20CUC for a ride to the centre. We insisted that there must be a cheaper way of doing this, but were proven wrong shortly after. At least we found this Russian Lada car from the 80s and paid 15CUC (5CUC less = each one of us saved 1.6CUC = less than 1GBP after some 20mins of hassle).

Cuba is also famous from friend-to-friend business relations, so the taxi driver was quick to recommend a friend’s Casa Particular, which is a Cuban version of hostels. In fact these are houses run by families appointed to this business by the government. One can always tell which ones they are ‘cause they present themselves with a blue mark on their door. From outside they look like an ordinary Cuban house (= worn down), but inside they are fully equipped and quite comfortable. Of course everything is owned and overseen by the government and in Habana one doesn’t need to worry about the prices as all Casas Particulares charge the same fee of 25CUC per room. Another rule, which no Cuban will break, is that only 2 people max. can stay in one room, so Andre (our Norwegian friend) had to stay in a different house from the one where we stayed.

I read a lot about Cuba in the Lonely Planet guide we bought for this trip, but still, Habana turned out to be a bigger surprise than expected anyway. One can probably never prepare for something so different. So yes, I took plenty of pictures of the 1950’s American cars. And yes, they are still running, as well as the Russian cars from 1980’s (including Lada and Moskwich). La Habana center offers plenty of beautiful historic sights ranging from huge palaces, cathedrals to forts and alongside that one can find a few tanks, land-to-land rockets and lots of propaganda at display. The first day we only did the Habana center tour including the view of the forts, stroll alongside the coastal area, Museum of Revolution and the Museum of Art, Plaza de 13 Marzo, El Capitolio, etc. People somehow figured we must have been millionaires (with backpacks) and kept on asking us for money and food. Unfortunately we couldn’t really feed everyone, so we decided conversely to feed no one instead.

We originally thought that it would have been a great idea to somehow obtain local Cuban Pesos, which the ordinary people use for purchases of ordinary goods (apart from meat for instance, which simply isn’t offered in stores). This idea soon turned slightly unrealistic as we were actually expected up front to pay with the hard currency – that is CUC – everywhere we went anyway.

Our family from Casa Particular also happened to be very entrepreneurial. I sometimes felt they would sell their daughter if they only could. Their scope of business included absolutely everything – i.e. booking a hotel in Varadero or Trinidad, car rentals, shopping, buses – just everything where one could make a buck. I developed a slight mistrust towards these people up front, so their info was since then taken with little credit.

Something very welcoming about La Habana are the women, who happen to be very fit and quite often also very beautiful. Guys definitely don’t get easily bored out there. Of course expectations were essentially raised in a matter of minutes and all three of us were suddenly ready to go clubbing, even happy to skip a few sights at its expense. Also the dinner had to be sorted quickly, which was an issue of its own again. It took us time to find a restaurant with sensible prices. Cuba is known for menus many pages long, but only a few items from it available. In our case only two or three meals were actually available, so we quickly made a choice – it wasn’t very hard – and ordered food ;o)) … The portions were miniature, but the environment built up by a live salsa band was highly appreciated, so we easily forget about leaving the place just a little less hungry than what we were upon arrival and left for our Casas Particulares.

It seemed to be a great deal of a problem to choose a club to go for, but Andre’s host-mom recommended a governmental chain of discos called Casa de la Musica. First I expected some kind of boring folk music being played there, but surprisingly the place was quite modern and music they played was very good. I specifically appreciated the Latino music called Reggaeton, which originates somewhere in Puerto Rico I guess.

The girls addressed us right on the way there. They had three reasons to speak to us, but none of them was simply friendship. They either asked us straight for money or for presents (beer, ticket to disco, etc.) or they wanted us to merry them. The last one is probably the most interesting reason. It is well known that many Cuban families live on money transferred to them by their relatives from abroad, and so the youths are encouraged to move out of Cuba and the only way to do it is to marry a foreigner. Maybe it’s also that they themselves don’t want to be there, but it’s still very remarkable. As none of my friends weren’t ready to either pay anyone, give presents or marry anyone, we arrived at the disco alone, and should we have decided to change our minds, plenty of opportunities to revert back to one of the three points listed above were present everywhere.

The Casa de la Musica was really fun. We danced and had a lot of fun. At one point, the entertainers went around the place and asked people which countries they were visiting from. I publicly admitted to be a foreigner and was promptly called onto the stage to perform in a dance contest. That was apparently a lost battle. As I also managed to drag my friend Andre on the dance floor too, the embarrassment could be shared. As we were then well established as extranjeros (foreigners), the girls’ attention intensified and all three of us got lured into buying drinks for the hope of building some friendships around the place. This was soon to be learnt as fault and we decided to never be stupid again …

Four o’clock in the morning seemed to be right time to go back to our casas. We also managed to meet two girls on the way out of whom one was good looking, smart and didn’t seem to expect gifts, money or marriage. We quickly got onto a friendly note and bought the girl a mango juice. This time it was not because she asked for it, but because we offered! Her friend was a bit annoying, so we decided to move on while Andre stayed behind. Before we left, we managed to get a promise out of her that she would show us some Habana in the afternoon.

Our first night sleep in Cuba was among the short ones. Since there was still plenty to discover in Habana, we only did some 5hrs of sleeping and met up at Andre’s place ready for further discoveries. Meanwhile our hosts set themselves a goal of finding us a rental car for the week. The whole plan blew into pieces some 2hrs later and cut out even more of our precious time that we wanted to spend touring the Cuban capital. Also our friend from early morning showed up to provide us with a guided tour, so we took her for lunch and then had her show us a few sights. I had to translate everything from Spanish to English, I was knackered as much as she was and my friends could probably hardly focus on what I was saying anywhere, so we decided to send her home with some money from us given as a gift intended to increase her standards of living (at least slightly).

The rest of Habana was a challenge. We were pretty much tired to do any walking, so the Habana Vieja (Old Habana) was suddenly finished in a matter of minutes, pictures were obtained and we returned back to our casas. The next stop was supposed to be Santa Clara, which is a town dedicated to the memorial of Ernesto Che Guevara. Che has a huge statue out there, which we wanted to see. Fortunately enough everyone decided to talk us out of it and said that it made much more sense to spend some 2hrs in Santa Clara and rather go straight to Trinidad, which we originally planned to be our next stop after Santa Clara. Good thing in Cuba, as we learnt shortly after, is that one can take so called Colectivos, which are normal taxis heading back to their original destination. These taxis stand around particular places and charge one the same rate as what we would have paid for the buses – 25CUC each (for about a 5hr ride). We thought for a while to be a great idea to take this fancy American open roof convertible all the way to Trinidad, but that would cost us about 3 times the amount we ended up paying, so the thought was quickly dismissed on the ground of insufficient funds. Our taxi instead was some kind of a Daewoo with a great built in fan screwed into the cockpit and a CD ROM providing the CD player capabilities sitting right below the fan. In Cuba, everything seemed to be possible then ;o)) …

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Member Comments

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On May 24, 2007, J. Perez wrote:

” I sometimes felt they would sell their daughter if they only could”

Mr. Farkas should apologize for such comments or not be allowed to post anymore.

I do not know what country Mr. Farkas comes from and I really do not care, but it would be interesting to consider how his country of origin would do after 46 years of a U.S. economic embargo and countless attempts at killing its leadership and isolating them from the rest of the world.

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On May 24, 2007, Pete Chavez wrote:

“Mr. Farkas should apologize for such comments or not be allowed to post anymore.”

Gosh, what COMITE’ DE DEFENSA does J. Perez work on?  Go back to Cuba with your culture of censorship if you can’t stand a person’s honest account of an experience in a society gone topsy turvy. 

I thought it was a great article.  It seemed like an honest account of the impressions of a culture made on a person that does not have a point of view either way.  This is what he saw, what he was privy to.  I think it’s great that he was able to be really honest and honest about his judgements.  At the end of the day it’s an accurate barometer of the desparation people live with when you see the loathsome situtations and people he has to endure while on a vacation.  I hope he will post again and more elaboratley about his impressions of Cuba.

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On May 26, 2007, J. Perez wrote:

Mr. Chavez,

If you do not take insult at a remark like that I feel sorry for the women in your life.

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On May 27, 2007, Pete Chavez wrote:

J. Perez,
I do not know what planet you think you are on.  Low lifes exist in Cuba like anywhere else.  Situations of pedaling one’s own kids,  I have seen with my own eyes and pale in comparison to the stories I’ve heard.  So it is not hard for me to imagine that a woman running a casa particular could have the disposition of a sleazy pimp.  Necessity in any country breeds reprehensible behavior. 
And no, I don’t take offense at all to his remarks, the women in my life were well brought up, well educated person that do not owe the revolution, Fidel or even Euro tourist anything! 
What I do find troubling is people that DO NOT comprehend what they are reading and think that all the problems in the world that Cuba has is always someone elses fault.

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On June 28, 2007, A. J-C wrote:

It’s always interesting to read a personal account, and this has some nice moments. Sadly though, like too many Cuba holiday tales it drips with such wide-eyed naivety and superficial experience that many of the observations and statements are simply unacceptable and others are quite ridiculous.

By all means share your thoughts but please do not attempt to tell it like it is when your actual understanding is clearly extremely shallow.

Cuba is already suffering from decades of misrepresentation, and this sort of still-high-from-holiday tourist snapshot account doesn’t help.

Go back, look more closely, listen, think, reflect. Then perhaps I’d like to hear what you have to say. Until then, your holiday journal ought to stay on your bedroom bookshelf, along with your photo album and Che souvenirs.

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On August 01, 2007, Miguel wrote:

“The tourists are first forced to exchange their pocket money for Cuban Convertibles (CUC) for rates dictated by everything else but free currency markets.” False - you may bring in as much of which currency you like, but to pay for goods and services you need the local convertible currency. The same as in most other countries.


“Casa Particular, which is a Cuban version of hostels. In fact these are houses run by families appointed to this business by the government. ... Of course everything is owned and overseen by the government.” False - casa particular simply means “private house”, and these houses are private enterprises, operating under strict government control. The owners are not appointed, but licensed by the authorities (they must pay a monthly license of 130 convertible pesos).

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On January 13, 2008, Carmel Curtis wrote:

Bravo Mr. Farkas,

I just stumbled upon this site and read your entry.
Having traveled to Cuba-yes -as a very proud American, with 28 others on a university trip in 2002, loving the whole experience, we had many similar tales as yours. We spent a great deal of cash and gave out even more to the people, every minute.  After a few days, I thought I would have to start begging with the Cubans, but felt that’s what travel and a special trip to Cuba was all about. Spending money I didn’t have, but it might make someones day or week a little better, was part of the experience-you only get one spin and maybe someday a return trip to Cuba. Our trip consisted of many who are just getting by on low teacher’s wages and all kinds of bills etc.! So J.Perez, you have no idea what you are speaking about! There are only so many hours a person can be ripped off and hustled for money-and that is coming from a very humble educated woman, who gives back to her community and family daily! After a while, being in situations like Mr. Farkas described does gets very unnerving and you do resent this type of treatment. I think Mr. Farkas described his trip in a very true, realistic light. People who travel to Cuba are not going for luxury, but do deserve basic respect as a tourist/guest. As we all stated on our trip, just stop playing us and we’ll give you what we have already! So I hope you catch-up on this journal and are listening because I have never written a re-buttle to anyone’s entries on any postings- ever,but after reading Dan Farkas’, I felt so strongly that he did capture the essence of Cuba- good, annoying, loving and surreal. I guess the U.S. embargo is responsible for all the problems in Cuba-Huh? Funny! J.Perez, I truly hope you are not living and voting in my country- And Bravo Pete Chavez too!
PS, I love looking at my souvenirs of Che, they always remind me of a once in a lifetime trip to Cuba, which will never be the same again-good, annoying, loving and surreal.

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On April 20, 2009, Reinaldo Batista wrote:

Look…. I know a lot of these things DO happen in Cuba, but there is no reason to make it sound like it is hell on earth. I was born and raised there and i can tell you that it is really stupid and wrong to say: “I think they would sell their daughters if they only could” because if there’s something cubans take seriously is FAMILY VALUES!!!!!!!!!!! So i hope I never meet this guy< because I’d show him hell on earth. But he made it sound like EVERYONE is that way< or at least a vast majority of the people. And that is REALLY offensive and disrespectfull to all cubans.