25 August, 2017
I left for Cuba early in the morning today. Dad drove me to the airport and I started the Vlog for Spare Change. The flights went easily with almost no delays and getting the Cuban tourist visa at the airport was an easy and painless process. Josh had asked me to interview the "wisest" aka oldest people I could find at the airport. Glenna and Mark did not disappoint. Although they were just children during the Cuban Missile Crisis and not alive for the Bay of Pigs Invasion they were very pro-Cuba and loved seeing that it was open for travel now. Mark was also a riot, he had me in stitches half the interview.
Upon arriving in Cuba it was immediately obvious how poor the country is. The first thing you saw was customs and only half the lights were on. Driving through the streets half the buildings were in ruin, construction projects abandoned, stray dogs running around, and people just shuffling about. It is hard to blend in here, it is blatantly obvious who is a tourist and who is not. So far it is quite relaxing and I wanted to go explore in the evening but I fell asleep and didn't wake up until the next morning. I guess I was more tired than I thought!
26 August, 2017
Today was amazing. Despite sleeping way longer than I anticipated it was just what I needed. I went for a run this morning and altered from my simple strategy of not making more turns than I could remember. I eventually ended up much farther from the hotel than I should have been and needed to take a taxi back. I made it in time for breakfast though which is all that counts. I got my map for the rest of the day and the walking tours to see all the big sites in the area. I ran into a guy named Antonio who became an immediate friend and tour guide. He took me all around Old Havana and also showed me the things that I would not be seeing on my walking tours.
The first thing he took me to see was the Solar(?). It is a communal living arrangement that many Cuban families in Havana have. There are seven small apartments that share a toilet and kitchen. There is also no running water, it is provided by the government. A large truck comes around and gives each Solar a refill on water each day into a large bucket. If the occupants are not home when the truck arrives then they receive no water for the day. Some people run Coperlatifs(?) out of their homes. These are Cuban Cigars that are sold on the side instead of through the government stores. They come at a large discount. I bought a small box of Montecristos and look forward to enjoying them with Antonio.
Antonio began taking me to the tourist areas and then to a nice restaurant where I bought us lunch. This restaurant was run in the downstairs of a person’s home and the children were working it. The food was delicious and the service was great. Afterwards Antonio had to return to work at the Museum of the Revolution where I had met him. I will be going back tomorrow for a tour and to see more sites with him.
The rest of the day I wandered around, edited my vlog video, and ended up at a rooftop bar listening to a live band. As I was leaving the owner stopped and tried to speak with me. I speak no Spanish so naturally was just trying to say thank you and leave. Then the man, Alexis, asked if I spoke French. Boy did we have a winner there. We spoke for nearly 30 minutes about different things and at the end he poured me a shot to enjoy with him and gave me his number so he could make sure to be there next time I swing by for dinner. I went to bed shortly after that so I would be ready to tackle the next day.
27 August, 2017
Antonio was a no show today. I ended up going on my tours alone. I saw all the different castles and forts along the water. The views were amazing and the weather was beautiful today. Clear, sunny, and hot. I held off on the museums so that I could have something to do tomorrow. The castles were kind of small but on top of the hill along the bay, so the views were well worth the commute under the bay. There are panoramic shots here. I walked all the way to the United States Embassy and saw booths being setup, I was not sure for what though. Once I got back near my hotel, I stopped for lunch at the same spot, Compostella 157. I met a man named Oswaldo. Oswaldo is from Peru but has lived all over the world. He speaks very good English and also Spanish, which is important for me.
Oswaldo and I met back up to go to the Carnival where I had seen all the booths get setup. We took the public bus just for the experience. Had Oswaldo not been there it would have been an even crazier adventure for me because I had no idea which bus to take or where to get off. The busses were packed and when one arrives everyone rushes to get inside. Most people don’t even have a chance to pay because so many people are running on. We met two girls from Spain that Oswaldo had already met. Cuba is pretty much like Pittsburgh in that you can see a person one place and just see them again a few hours later in a completely different place.
The carnival was fun and we snuck into the National Hotel to see what it looked like. The carnival had two areas for the parade though. VIP had seats and not as crowded, however you needed a ticket. To get into the VIP section you had to pass through police checkpoints and police guarded the fence every 10 meters. We went to the very end and while all the police were distracted checking people hopped over the fence and into the VIP area. The view was great and the crowd was thin. There were many different floats featuring specific music and dancers and in between the floats we listened to the live band in our section. Overall the night was really fun and tomorrow Oswaldo and I will go see the Museums.
28 August, 2017
Today started off quite slow. I slept in, had breakfast and went to meet Oswaldo. Oswaldo and I just missed each other at the museum so I went to the Museum of the Revolution alone. Afterwards I honestly felt pretty lonely. I had no idea what to do to kill time and just wished I had someone to hang out with. Traveling alone is great but at the same time it gets so lonely, especially when you see everyone else with someone. I just wandered around, bar hopped, chilled at the hotel. I had lunch at the local brewery and the beers were decent and so was the burger. The place would never compare to an American brewery though. They had 2 big tanks in the middle of the brewery and that was it. Very desolate and not very many options. I kept wandering and was getting quite fed up with the locals. Everywhere you turned people would ask “where are you from” and blab with you and then ask you to give them money or buy them a drink. I would just keep changing where I was from and pretend to not speak English but these people were relentless.
I stopped to watch a group of guys play dominoes. They were real, down to earth people. They let me watch, take pictures and videos, and didn’t ask for a dime. One guy named Joseph even explained how the game worked and had me play a few rounds. It was a lot of fun and a great learning experience. Afterwards, I took Joseph back to the hotel to grab some of the Cigars I had bought to show him my appreciation. We kept chatting and he really gave me insight into his life, as well as what it is like to live in Cuba.
Joseph is 39 years old and is an Occupational Therapist. In Cuba the nurses work 24 on 72 off for five and a half months. They then receive two and a half weeks of vacation. Their salary is only $45 dollars USD per month. In order to make ends meet for himself and his daughter, Joseph is a bookie. In the US a bookie is someone who is essentially the lottery. It is the same in Cuba. Joseph has people who come to him and pay him to play their numbers. If the number that the state chooses wins, Joseph pays the person the full amount and they do not lose any money to tax. If the person loses, Joseph keeps all the money. He has all sorts of people that come to him to play even police officers. The officers play at a discounted rate as a sort of extortion scheme instead of arresting him. After everyone plays, Joseph gives the list of numbers played to a messenger who takes them to his boss. Joseph does not even know who his boss is and he does not want to know.
Joseph is the friendliest and honest person I met while I was here in Cuba. He did not even ask me for a dime after all the time I spent with him. His friends also offered to take me fishing tomorrow, but unfortunately I leave around noon. We wrapped up our evening together in a solar. He goes there every night for dinner and pays one of the families for his meal each night. We sat in this couples living room and had our rice, black beans, pork, and avocado. It was the most delicious meal I had while I was here. The hosts were extremely friendly and I showed them all how I was filming on my phone and editing the videos together. Unfortunately, my phone is running out of room so I will need to send the last 20 minutes of footage to the other guys with Spare Change to edit and publish. Jared should not have too much difficulty editing it though!
29 August, 2017
Today was the last day. Joseph met me to go film the sunrise and we spent two hours just chatting about life while the hyper lapse was taking. On the way back we stopped to buy coffee from an old lady on the street. It is so apparent how different you are treated when you are with a local. People don't try to shake you down, they shake your hand. The peddlers don’t talk to you but the people do. I met Joseph's father and friends and they were so welcoming. Unfortunately, I was leaving at noon or I would have enjoyed a nice fresh caught fish meal from one of his fisherman friends.
The big adventure for the morning was trying to find a place to exchange my currency. None of the banks in Havana had USD and it took us walking to all of the banks in Old Havana to find this out. It was either get it exchanged at the airport, which meant waiting in a long long line, or exchanging it on the black market. I chose the black market. I made out better this way. The exchange rate was 1:1 and I did not get hit with the 10% conversion fee again. I came in under budget also, which was great for me! Joseph showed me a local construction project being run by a private company. He shared with me that this is how he believes Cuba will be rebuilt. Through the people, not the government. He was very passionate about this and I was sad to part ways with him shortly after. I got his address so that he and I can stay in touch! I flex home shortly after and enjoyed a nice cigar with my buddy Blake who had picked me up from the airport.
This entire experience was so humbling to see how much better we have it in America as compared to one of our neighbors. We complain about taxes and our government but we don’t have half-finished road projects and buildings that are falling apart. We don’t go without water for a day if we aren't home to meet the water truck. Things just get put into perspective. This was the real Cuba.