What could I expect to see/experience in Havana in just one day? Well kudos to our cab driver/tour guide/bodyguard Misael, we managed to scratch the surface of Havana and actually experience the Cuban way of life even if it was the Reader’s Digest version.
There were excursions available with the tour companies associated with the resort. We reviewed the brochures and declared that we would ‘think about it’. It was a costly day and I wasn’t satisfied that the money would actually go to the locals per se. One morning before the sun became really hot we decided to take a short trip into the neighboring town of Veredaro. A bus stop was ‘down the road’ a bit from the resort and as we left the grounds, cab drivers in little yellow registered taxis were parked on the road hustling anyone who looked like they needed a ride somewhere. A young man beat the other 4 taxi drivers to the punch when he shouted he would take us for 15 pesos. We declined as the bus would only charge 5 pesos. He immediately dropped his rate to 12. Air conditioned cab/versus hot rattling bus ….um… “Okay!” we shouted back. That was easy.
The cab driver took us Veredaro, waited for us to stroll all the markets and whistled to us whenever he saw us returning to ‘the spot’ for pickup. He never let us out of his sight apparently as other drivers (registered cab drivers or not) typically try to hustle you and will scoop our business even though the cab drivers consider themselves ‘colleagues’. He marketed his services (on the return trip to the resort) for a trip to Havana. Not only was he 30 pesos cheaper, but promised to stay with us all day and to take us to all the high points (where the bus tours go). He said he would NOT take us to the ‘tourist restaurants’ claiming that the food had no flavor. Instead he would take us to a ‘private family restaurant’. That sounded intriguing and I was curious. He was well versed in the history of Cuba and spoke fairly good English, although his rapid fire English meant I said ‘pardon’ a lot. He was trying to make a living driving a cab.…and we both decided that hiring him for the day without the ‘script’ of a tour guide was a better idea. On the designated day and time, Misael was in our lobby happy and rearing to go.
The Havana visit will be a separate blog as there was a lot to see in one day. On our trip to and from Havana though, Misael regaled us with lots of history and interesting facts about Cuba. I tried to remember it all and ever resorted to writing it down in a little notepad. But after awhile I just sat back and enjoyed it all. So for those who like bits of trivia or other useless information I will list them here:
(Disclaimer: most of this information was provided by Misael and I have not confirmed its validity, other bits I observed.)
- In Cuba, pedestrians stop for the traffic…not the other way around.
- In Cuba, you tip to GET service, instead of tipping for good service. It is the opposite way of thinking and once you ‘get that’…it is okay.
- The ‘sisal’ plant is used to make rope. The flower at the top is used to make birth control. The plant looks like a huge pineapple with a spikey top. The plants are harvested twice a year.
- Havana does not have running water. Water is pumped into the buildings via large water trucks. Hence it is not safe to drink (or eat in some places). A lot of streets are dug up with the old water/sewer systems in various stages of removal.
- In Cuba, all young people between the ages of 18-20 are in military school for 2 years…it is mandatory. Unless you are going to university, then it is only one year.
- Private family restaurants are allowed, but have to employ family members only. Regardless of their income, the restaurant has to pay a certain amount to the government each month. Misael was right…the food was delicious and abundant!
- Healthcare is free as is all education, whether you want to be a hairdresser or a doctor!
- There are 16 ‘provinces’ in Cuba and there is a medical school in every province.
- Cubans can now leave Cuba whether for a holiday or to live elsewhere. The host country has to ‘sponsor’ or approve their passport/visa.
- ‘Hitch hiking’ is still a common and acceptable practice in Cuba
- Chickens, horses, cows and goats roam free in the countryside…no fencing is required. Beef is tough and grisly. Pork is considered the most popular meat.
- Wood for construction has to be imported from Venezuela; hence most buildings are made of concrete.
- Cuba makes the best cigars in the world and holds the record in the Guinness book for the longest cigar.
- Sugar cane is one of their main industries. Their Rum is made from sugar cane! And rum is cheap!
- Crime is handled swiftly and with stiff penalties.
- Tourism is a valued industry. Crimes against tourists are almost unheard of although petty crimes in the cities like pick pocketing is still prevalent.
- Locals are not allowed onto the resorts unless they are employed there. Anyone venturing onto the resorts without permission is duly arrested and removed. (We witnessed this!! But didn’t have my camera in hand…darn!)
- Unemployment exists in Cuba. However the unemployed are given ‘stamps’ for basic needs. They are given 6 years to find employment after which they are cut off from this ‘welfare’ type system.
- Old cars are fixed up and driven FOREVER. Gas here is about 1.25 per liter!
- Cabs can come in the form of registered taxis, old convertibles, horse and wagon, bicycle or rickshaw type, or anything that has four wheels or four hooves. And you always, always negotiate the cab fare before getting in the cab!
Coming soon: Off to Havana (Habana) High Ho High Ho