There's something really amusing and exciting about leaving straight from my office and ending up in a different country 24 hours later. On April 6, I left Mickey Mouse's house for the last time, clearing out my desk, returning company property, and grabbing my last paycheck.
I shot straight down to San Diego for dinner with my friend Pranee and then hopped a flight from Tijuana to Mexico City. I remember the lights of Tijuana taking off were beautiful, as were the lights of Guadalajara as we stopped over for a bit in the middle of the night. Mexicana airlines provided cookies, some sort of cheese/ham bread, and potato chips which I snacked on sitting on the floor of Mexico City's international airport. I watched cleaning persons constantly maintaining shiny floors and observed backpackers also sitting on the floor around the terminal. I wondered where they'd come from and where they were headed. Then I wondered the same about myself.
A few hours later, I landed in Havana. The palm trees and sunshine reminded me a bit of Hawaii. Jose Marti Intl. Airport seemed old and slightly bare. Flags of countries around the world hung from the ceiling of Terminal B. I didn't see one for the U.S. I was a little nervous going through Mexican and Cuban customs. Throughout the trip, I was being sent to windows here and there to pay fees and fill out forms. I don't speak Spanish so I felt very stupid for not being able to understand instructions. Cuban customs sternly sent me away the first time to finish filling out my visa form as I had neglected to do so. When the agent returned, she angrily asked, "Anthony?", with a serious face. When I responded yes, she smiled disarmingly for a moment. Weird. But all was well and I was sent through. Thankfully, my luggage made it safely and I was off to find a taxi.
Much like Mexico, there are groups of taxi drivers waiting at the exit to take your business. I found one who said it was $25 to Havana. I told him no and said $20 was more reasonable (fortunately, my friend Valentina had emailed me and mentioned this was the fair price, though if you're lucky/cute, you can bring it down to $15). As we exited the airport, I realized that I hadn't exchanged currency.
Cuba uses two forms of currency, the National Peso and the Cuban Convertible Peso or CUC for short. Essentially, only Cubans use National Pesos for food and non-luxury items and foreigners use the CUC. In 2004, as a response to the US's stricter sanctions, there was an added 10% fee for exchanging US dollars to CUC. I had anticipated this and carried Euros with me to get a better rate.
Speaking of exchanges, I had no idea what the clerk at the money counter was asking me. I looked at her dumbfounded. "(something in Spanish)" she asks. "Uh, four? All of it? Viva Fidel?" I respond with no luck. Finally she takes my money, counts it out and points to her computer monitor. I somehow communicate that I need smaller bills. And I'm out of there and into a taxi.
On the way to Havana, I get to know the driver. I tell him how beautiful Havana is even though we've barely left the airport grounds. I learn that he was schooled as a computer engineer but drove a taxi because the money is better. From my understanding, one can train in just about any field of work but the pay is low. A doctor will make something like $45 a month while a taxi driver can pull in twice that in a day (though most of it goes back to the government... Americans aren't the only one's screwed by high taxes).
He points out different buildings along the way. Ministry of Information, Ministry of Communication, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Ministries... seriously, there are a lot of ministries there. We zig-zagged through Habana Vieja (or Old Havana) for a bit before finally finding Alfredo y Martha's Casa Particular at 668 Calle Habana between Sol and Muralla.
Throughout Cuba, you can either stay in hotels that run $70 and higher per night or you can stay in Casa Particulars which are rooms rented out by families. Some are licensed with the government and some are 'underground'. The benefit of stay at a Casa is that rooms run for a standard $25 per night. I was meeting my friend Valentina there to share a room so our rate was $30/night. Some Casas offered breakfast and/or dinner for an extra charge. Ours served a delicious breakfast of eggs, bread, and plentiful fresh fruit. Anyhow...
I was greeted by the very lovely Martha who told me Valentina was out for a bit with one of the other guests. I went to my room and rested a little. I took off my shoes and slipped my flip flops on. I was in Havana. WTH?