another cliché
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a poorly kept travel journal

So uhh...Cuba

On the way home from climbing, there was a story on NPR about Fidel’s death and with Trump being elected, what it could mean for US-Cuba relations. I realized that, with Trump’s inauguration on January 20, this could be the last opportunity I have in my life to go to Cuba. So, I texted Dina asking if she had any interest in visiting Cuba. Uncharacteristically, she’d already gone to sleep for the night, but woke up the next morning and saw my text.

Turns out, Anand and Nadereh were just chatting her up about going. In fact, she almost texted me, but figured there was no way I would be able to get the time off. So uhh…Cuba.

edit: Tickets purchased. 11 days and counting.

¡Yo voy a...Florida!

Took off a little early from work to make it to the bank to pick up euros (Cuba charges a 10% fee converting USD to CUC, plus a 3% transaction fee, so depending on USD to EUR, it’s usually worth the extra conversion). Made it just in time, got dinner and took off for the airport.

Our flight from SF was delayed two hours, so we took off well after midnight. not at it mattered, but we had a five hour layover at FLL, so ere was plenty of time. After arriving at FLL, we got to our gate, got visas, and then got food. Once we got back to our gate, we checked the boards and found our flight delayed. then we got a torrent of emails telling us our flight was delayed further. then we missed our flight. I’m really not sure how that happened, but after scrambling and almost purchasing tickets to Havana on Spirit (and only seeing three people yelling at Spirit agents for their horrible service, we ended up working with JetBlue to get on the next flight out, at 8am the following morning.

Throughout all of this, we tried to get in contact with our friends in Cuba to tell them our plans had changed, but couldn’t get through. It’s going to be really interesting to see what not having reliable internet access is like.

With 20 hours to kill, we checked into our hotel, took showers and started looking for a place to eat. If you’re ever in Ft. Lauderdale, do yourself a favor and find a little hole in the wall called Island Fusion Grill. It might take a bit for your food to arrive, but it is more than worth it. I ordered the churrasco, Dina had brown stew, and all we could do was smile and eat. The owners, Diana and Jorge, are the sweetest people you could ever meet, and their ability to cook is remarkable.

After dinner, we went back to the hotel and passed out at 8pm.

Cuba for real this time

After waking up at the obscene hour of 5am (and feeling amazing!) we got up and out and on the plane. Initially, we were turned away at the gate because our boarding pass didn’t have the proper stamps. Whatever, we made it.

Not our plane, but still pretty!
Not our plane, but still pretty!

I felt trepidatious arriving in Cuba, more so than Costa Rica, India, or even Thailand. Even though my Spanish is better than my non-existent Thai (or Hindi, or Punjabi), I felt exposed. Maybe because of my some-but-not-enough Spanish, I felt acutely aware of my incompetence. Or maybe because the guard-rails of American tourism were gone. Or maybe it’s because I’m going to a country that for most of my life I’ve been told is an enemy of the state. Maybe it was just knowing my cell phone wasn’t gonna work. It wasn’t the same near-panic I felt on the flight to Himachal Pradesh, but I was excited!

After landing, we made it through customs and border patrol very quickly, changed money, and got a taxi to the apartment. One of the neighbors was kind enough let us the gate, and we took a slow elevator to our floor. We found the room, rang, knocked, and waited stood outside, but to no avail. Figuring they had gone to breakfast, we left a note and went exploring.

We walked towards the malecon, then cut a loose circle back to the house, checking out a market on the way. Think farmers market with more interesting smells. We got back to the house and sat down outside to wait to meet up with the rest of the crew.

Dina kicking it
Dina kicking it

While we sat, the same man who let us in earlier came by and asked us what had happened. We explained we missed our friends and were just waiting for them. He introduced himself as Filiberto and struck up a conversation. He had recently moved to Havana to live in the place his daughter, a former anesthesiologist, had vacated. Several years earlier, she had met a man from Belgium vacationing in Cuba, and they had since married and she moved to be with him. The husband was able to support their entire family by running a grocery store. It was really heartening to hear how proud he was of his daughter for making bold moves, despite the life she had built here.

Eventually, Anand and Hanna showed up, so we headed up stairs. After getting water, talking story, explaining the cf of the past day, we got up and out and began wandering.

We grabbed lunch/breakfast at Paladar Santa Barbara. It was good, but didn’t compare to the Island Fusion Grill.

Lunch at Paladar Santa Barabara
Lunch at Paladar Santa Barabara
Honey glazed chicken
Honey glazed chicken

After, we stopped by the Hotel Nacional in a failed search for wifi, then successfully had a mojito. From there, we took a car to Habana Vieja to wander. True to recommendations, the iced chocolate beverage from the Museo de Chocolate was excellent, no matter how spoiled SF chocolatiers have made us. The drinking chocolate from Dandelion would still be my top recommendation, but when in Havana…

On the walk over, we wandered through a dense residential area, which was pretty interesting. People just hung out outside, talking with their neighbors, taking in the scene. The disparity between living conditions between the US and Cuba were obvious though, and we were approached by one person asking for money for his sons birthday. I guess when the average salary is US$20/month, asking obvious tourists for a buck or two is low risk/high reward.

After chocolate (and a coffee) we headed to El Bodegito de Midio. They had a live band playing, and Dina and I snuck in a dance! Afterward, we headed to dinner at Atelier. The food was fine, but better meals can be had for less money. Following, we walked by Gato Tuero, but the $5 cover was enough of a deterrent that we opted instead to head home, plan for tomorrow, and sleep.

Any Revolution Without Dancing....

We had a leisurely morning, followed by a wonderful brunch at Archangel Cafe. the place was adorable, the food was good, and the coffee was top notch.

See, adorable
See, adorable

Following brunch, we took a horse drawn carriage tour of old Havana. The tour itself was whatever, but it was great getting a better understanding of the lay of the land. Afterward, we hoofed it through old town in a direction vaguely towards the Abath Synagogue. Havana is beautif`ul.

Johnson's pharmacy. I have no idea why it was so nice. They basically sold bandaids.
Johnson's pharmacy. I have no idea why it was so nice. They basically sold bandaids.
Dina and Hanna out in front of the Florida Hotel in Habana Vieja
Dina and Hanna out in front of the Florida Hotel in Habana Vieja
Not every alleyway looked like this, but many did. Incredible.
Not every alleyway looked like this, but many did. Incredible.

Pre-revolution, there was a significant Jewish presence in Cuba. Consequently, in 1963, the community broke ground on a synagogue in Havana. However, construction was hamstrung through the start of the revolution in 1969. So, the finished building was drab and angry, surrounded by barbed wire. According to the rabbi, at the start of the revolution, everyone with the means left. Following the revolution, anyone practicing a religion was excluded from entering government service and higher education. This practice lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union, at which time restrictions were loosened. Despite the subjugation, there remains a population of a nearly 1,000 Jews here in Havana today.

Following the synagogue, we downed several rounds of mojitos at the Havana Club while discussing the finer points of index and hedge funds (the irony coming to Cuba to discuss this was not lost on us), then rendez-vous’d back at the house.

We showered, freshened up, and headed to dinner at La Guarderia. From the outside, it was completely nondescript and we would have never found it ourselves. Our cabbie himself had to ask directions twice, despite it being one of, if not the, most famous restaurant in the country.

The entrance to La Guarderia
The entrance to La Guarderia
Dina and Hanna in the ballroom.
Dina and Hanna in the ballroom.

We entered on the ground floor (accidentally detouring into some poor guy’s living room on our search for the bar), ascended to the second floor, where Dina and I waltzed on the beautiful marble floor, took some photos, and then proceeded to dinner. While considerably more expensive than other restaurants we’d been to whole here (on par with SF), the food was absolutely top notch.

The walls were covered in really interesting pieces
The walls were covered in really interesting pieces

Dinner was wonderful, followed by yet another economics/political discussion. We grabbed a cab to La Fabrica (which we discovered closes early on Monday nights), then to El Zorro y Cuervo for some jazz.

Throughout the day, we were surrounded by art. People dancing in the streets just because, painting and selling their art on the sidewalk, playing music. How Cuban economy work to support that, or is it in such dire straights such that someone occasionally giving even one CUC makes it all worth it. The guide mentioned rationing, so it will be interesting to look into that further. Is it all black market, or is it more like a basic income? Internet would help this.

Habana Vieja y El Malecon

  1. “breakfast” at chef Ivan something or other.

Ceviche was excellent

  1. Museo de la Revolucion
  2. Cafe Paris
  3. Dinner at some Italian place
  4. Malecon

Moving into Luís's

After the late night on the Malecon, getting up at nine to clear out of the house was rough. Luckily “moving” only consisted of packing up and walking across the street. We got settled while Naudereh and Anand went to the bus station to try to secure a ride to Trinidad for the next day.

Dina, Hanna, and I had a wonderful conversation with our host, Luis, about US-Cuba relations.

Luis took us around the corner to the neighborhood cafeteria, Don Bello. The food was good by Cuban standards and we spent lunch discussing the different ways countries (i.e. the US and Cuba) spread wealth.

Following lunch, we went to an enormous warehouse filled with art from Cuban artists. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many painted canvases under one roof. After several hours of deliberation, Dina came away the winner with two gorgeous pieces at a good price, though Hanna got a great painting of an elephant in the rain with an umbrella. I picked up something small for Sophie, and Anand and Naudereh got some maracas, then went and got beers next door.

“Next door” turned out to be another converted warehouse home to Cuba’s nacent craft brewing scene. They had three beers, “dark”, “medium”, and “light”, which were all fair. At least on par with the Bucaneros we had been drinking. The live band was perfect, and at one point the lead singer managed to snipe Hanna and get a nice dance out of her.

From there, we headed to Chinatown for dinner, which locals hasen to mention no longer has any Chinese people in it (I was one of probably a half dozen people of any type of asian decent we saw the entire trip). The food all looked pretty bad, and they were out of every vegetarian option, so we high tailed it.

We scored a ride from a sweet 1957 convertible (which I think was a Plymouth Belvedere). At a stoplight, someone in the car next to us looked over and gave us a thumbs up, “Nice ride! That’s the only one on the island!”. After dinner at Plan B (which included a malt soda that tasted exactly like raisin bran), we called it for the night and crashed hard.

Headed to Trinidad

Got up, Luís made breakfast, we piled in a jeep, and headed for Trinidad. Got a beautiful hotel, El Atico, then bummed around. Looked at some art. Go drinks at a beer hall, had some great discussions. Had a fantastic meal at Redacion de la Liberal.


Woke up early, spent the day horseback riding. Kinda wanna make this more of a regular thing.

Post ride, we came back and showered. I finally convinced myself that painting hanging in the gallery the previous day was worth it, and picked up, along with a second painting for Anand and Naudereh. The plan is to put it above my bed, but if not, it’ll work somewhere else.

We grabbed dinner at someplace called Jazz something or other. I had a cornflake crusted curry and lemon chicken that was surprisingly good, then met up with a few of the people we had met while riding earlier in the day. We went three rounds at this adorable bar whose owner looks exactly like Dina’s cousin Mark.

Dina and I went on a futile search for wifi. Dina semi-befriended some drunk ass blonde, while her Chris Hemsworth looking boyfriend chatted me up, pawned a cigar off on me, which unfortunately had none of the redeeming qualities I hoped for.

The day defined by dinner

Naudereh’s crotch is super swollen

Those were the first words we woke up to on Saturday morning. I don’t think she’ll be riding again soon.

Breakfast at the panaderia, taxi to El Nicho, then to Cienfuegos.

Walked around Cienfuegos.

Extremely interesting dinner. Turns out we definitely bought fake cigars. bought some rum, then hung out on the Malecon and smoked the cigar. Better than last nights, has some positive qualities, but not gonna be a regular thing.

Homeward bound!

Woke up. Read. Breakfast at the house. Taxi to the airport.

Dealt with customs (because I didn’t get a certificate when I purchased the piece, I had to pay a whole $3 to get the painting out of the country). We got on the plane. Other than the poor babies screaming behind us much of the flight, the flight was easy.