A Dip in Havana

This post is a long time coming. My daughter and I went to Cuba back in May. It was part a birthday celebration for her, and part a personal bucket-list destination, made all the more urgent given the current administration’s antics. If we didn’t go now, there was no telling when a rash travel ban would keep us from visiting this colorful nation.

We made it in without a hitch, despite the flight delay and the time it took to get our luggage, which in turn caused me to miss my Afro Cuban dance class. But I knew that time would have to be a non-factor on this trip, so I just made it do what it do.

In researching this trip, one of the most nagging, recurring themes on the travel blogs – primarily written by city-dwelling White folks from small American towns – was the insistence that Cuban food was not very tasty given the lack of resources. Now I, being a Black woman knew that that fact couldn’t possibly be true. Black people have been making the best with the least for all eternity. So one of the first things I did was ditch any and all advice to go to the tourist trap restaurants and straight up ask a Cuban where to go to eat real, good food.

We weren’t disappointed. From succulent grilled chicken, to chargrilled fish by the sea, our palates were kept happy by an array of flavor-packed dishes. I knew my intuition was right. If in doubt, go where there are no tourists.

We took a day trip to Varadero, which, for my daughter and I was the absolute highlight. We are natural beach bunnies, and we will snatch any chance to be by the water and sand. The water was astounding. Shocking shades of blue and turquoise against a pleasing sun, just gave me life. We could stay there for days.

Another day, we ventured out to the Hemingway estate, taking a local 1-peso bus to the destination. Yes, it took a little longer, but it was an experience to sit amongst the people, unsheltered, unfiltered, plain. To see the part of the city away from the postcard-ready antique cars and meticulously curated musicians in hotels was a welcome departure for me. And an important part of my daughter’s travel experience. The Hemingway house was simply beautiful. Airy, floral, bright, and filled with the curiosities of an artist. Even not being a Hemingway fan, I appreciated walking the tranquil, lush grounds.

Finally, we loved just walking back and forth along the Malecon, sitting with fisherman, listening to music, or just enjoying a cold drink while we watched the sunset. It was absolutely magical.

There’s so much more to say about Cuba. My feelings both conflict and draw parallels with my Haiti trip from earlier this year. Where Haiti was rife with flimsy NGOs reaping the benefits of endless funding while barely contributing to the people they were meant to serve, Cuba’s communist government helped in a way to curb would-be foreign opportunists from gaining too much, too soon while giving little back. Much of what I see happening in Cuba is American and European agencies and independent people charging thousands of dollars on their mainland to experience brown culture. And the people who go on, and profit from these excursions are primarily white. This angers me. Because I wonder how much, exactly, the Cuban people are getting in exchange for their culture, and their blackness, which in all reality is the sell. So while a communist government is obviously not ideal for the people, it at least begins to put a cap on how much travel colonialism can take place on their land.

Other stuff: I used a Moments Telephoto lens. It made all my iPhone photos look amazing. I appreciated the wide lens that allowed me to fully capture the landscape.

Money: The one issue I was afraid of was running out of money. There are no access to American ATMs, so you need to bring all your cash with you. I basically carried around 3 sets of money: US Dollars,  Convertible Pesos, and the local peso (MN). Once you go through the Convertible pesos, you learn real quick that you can get double the deal with half the money if you have local currency. Before I left, I converted my US Dollars to Canadian. When I arrived, I converted half my Canadian dollars to Convertible pesos; when I got into town I converted more to local money. Just do it. Your wallet will thank you.

Haggling: You can haggle down a pedi cab, which will always want to charge more once you’re close to the city center. This is where being Black helps. I never got charged the gringo rate. Overall, just take local transport. The exception would be to and from the airport.

Food: If there’s only Cubans, and if the line is long, go there. And carry local money so you can pay for cheap street food and ice cream. We also had the pleasure of eating with the ladies of the house who would always send the white tourists to a prearranged restaurant before stuffing us with delicious homemade Cuban cuisine. If you want good food, just eat with a Cuban.

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