Throwback Travel: A Bleachy Havana Night

**NOTE to READERS: The following describes a trip which took place in March and early April, 2016. 

2016-04-01 18.41.23Friday, April 1, 2016.

Part Two.

For our last night in town, Santana’s organized a dinner.

We pile onto the bus and drive to this nice restaurant where our meal includes musical entertainment, dim mood lighting and lobster.

Talking amongst ourselves, some of us are suspicious. We think the dinner is Santana’s way of buttering us up for a good end-of-trip tip, despite his slightly ridiculous demeanour almost the entire time.

Jana’s already decided she’s not giving him a thing. Same with Sue, to whom Santana spoke to quite rudely early on. I’m still on the fence. I don’t dispute he’s been a crap leader, but there were a couple moments where he wasn’t completely terrible. Eh. I’ll decide later.

Towards the end of dinner, part of the group plans to walk to another establishment for goodbye drinks. So afterwards, we pile back on to the bus, which drives us to another neighbourhood and stops to drop off part of the group.

One by one, those of us departing shake Santana’s hand and say our goodbyes. He doesn’t get a single tip.

Led by Joe and Claire, our band of tourists wind our way through the streets to an open square – which is bustling – and the bar they recommend.

I’m still full from dinner, but give in to a beer. Of course, a full belly means a few trips to the ladies’ room. I wouldn’t mention this mundane detail, except for one thing.

On my second or third trip to the restroom, I’m looking for soap to wash my hands, and can’t find a dispenser. In my haze, I notice a tinted plastic bottle with liquid, which I naturally assume to be watered-down liquid soap.

I pour some onto my hands … and I don’t realize my mistake until about five seconds later, when the unmistakeable smell of bleach hits my nostrils.

Yep. Bleachy water. All over my hands.

I start panicking because (1) bleach and (2) the group’s about to leave the bar at any moment. I do what I can to rinse my hands for a couple of minutes, but the stench is STILL THERE.

So I spend a good chunk of our group’s departure from the bar doing a terrible job of acting casual while periodically dousing my hands with bottled water and flapping them like a Muppet.

Jana, Claire and Joe and I walk back to the casa that we’re sharing (as it turns out), and we chatted a bit before saying our goodnights – and for me, goodbye. I’ll be the first to leave for the airport, in the wee hours of the morning.

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Jana and I say we’ll keep in touch (but really, I’m the only one emailing for the first little bit). Six weeks or so after our adventure in Cuba, she takes off on a another trip — this time, to Sri Lanka. (Guess her stressful job has some perks.)

I have had an email exchange with Anick and Lieven, but life has picked up again, so I haven’t really kept it up. The person I’ve probably had the most correspondence with is Joe – 16-hour time difference and all.

One other thing:

Back in Toronto, I visit the travel agency where I booked my trip, and fill them in on my experience in great verbal detail. They ask me to email them my comments, which they send to the tour operator’s regional manager.

I’m guessing that enough of my fellow trip-mates complain to the tour operator, that they got the message – Santana is removed from the tour.

I get a small bit of compensation, which I can put towards a trip in the next couple of years.

We’ll see.

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And that’s what happened to me in Cuba over Easter in 2016. I hope you enjoyed my posts!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta go pack — I’ve leaving the country on vacation, and I cannot wait!

Maybe I’ll do this again sometime. But until then, feel free to read about this trip, or any of my previous posts! Thanks for reading.

 

Still photo posted above is mine. Please don’t re-post without my permission. 

 

Throwback Travel: Back to Havana

**NOTE to READERS: The following describes a trip which took place in March and early April, 2016. 

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Friday, April 1, 2016.

Part One. 

We depart Cienfuegos relatively early for our return trip to Havana. But this road trip goes a little differently.

Slightly fed up with the lack of educational information we’ve gotten from Santana over the course of the past week, Jeff – one of the older Aussies on the trip – has compiled a bunch of basic questions about Cuba.

And as we board the bus for Havana, he hands our intrepid trip leader the slip of paper with the questions.

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So for part of our road trip, Santana finally entertains some of us nerds by answering questions about government, language, culture, employment and so on.

ALL THE BASICS HE SHOULD HAVE COVERED LAST. WEEK.

And when he was through, we all turned to Jeff and gave him his props.

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We’re in Havana proper by early afternoon and immediately deal with sorting out our accommodations one last time. After which, part of the group who hasn’t seen Havana will do a tour with Santana, while those of us who have will spend that time on our own.

While we’re waiting, another tour (same company, different trip) passes through the vicinity. We cross paths with their trip leader, and even though our interaction is brief, deep down I’m envious, because he doesn’t seem like a douchebag. Why didn’t we get him?!

Jana and I are placed in a homestay a couple of streets down from home base. Our hostess is a lovely older lady who speaks no English. She shows us our rooms, and the bathroom which we’ll be sharing with another couple who will show up later.

Unlike the homestays in Santa Clara, Trinidad and Cienfuegos, this place is a bit smaller, and it’s much more worn down – it’s definitely seen better days.

After taking a breather, Jana and I go in search of lunch, after which we’ve tentatively planned to check out New Havana. We weave our way through the crowds and try queuing at a to-go pizza place … but between the long wait and realizing we’d have to convert our cash from tourist to local pesos, we change our minds, mulling over what to do next.

We remember passing a guy on the streets moments before, trying to get us to come into his restaurant … and we cave and double back — we’re too hungry to be picky. He quotes us a price for pizza and a drink, which sounds reasonable to us.

2016-04-01 12.31.16We’re led to a table on the upper level, near a window and the bar. Except for a couple of Chinese tourists seated a few tables away, this place is pretty empty. A TV sitting on a corner of the bar plays music video after music video of the same Latin pop artist, each a different cheesy scenario of the video’s main character romancing the long-haired, leggy love interest.

We get our pizza and drinks and enjoy the sunlight streaming through the window. I gaze at the crumbling building across the street, a flag sticking out one of its windows.

This part I don’t quite remember, but sometime between us finishing our meals and asking for our bills, the server comes over, asking if I could switch a 5-peso bill for a Canadian $5 bill he’s holding. I do so reluctantly, suspicious of the bill. (Blogger’s note: the thought crossed my mind as to whether the bill was counterfeit. Luckily, it wasn’t.)

The bill arrives, and from the looks of things, the total on the bill is NOT what we were quoted on the sidewalk outside.

The old tourist-price swindle.

Jana is (obviously and understandably) mad. I’m really annoyed.

We pay our bill, and as we step out in the street, we see the guy who lured us here, apparently trying to attract more business. I can’t recall exactly what he says to us, but I believe he tries to thank us for coming, at which point Jana says we WON’T be returning and ends the conversation by saying, “YOU are a liar”, turning on her heel as we head back toward the casa.

Our plans to check out New Havana evaporate by the time we return indoors and turn on the A/C.

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After our afternoon naps, we’re sitting on our beds chatting, when I hear a muffled buzzing nearby … which sounds a lot like my cellphone.

One thing I haven’t really talked about in these entries is the wi-fi access in Cuba. At the time I’m visiting, it’s spotty at best. (In fact, right around the time I’m visiting, Google has opened its first online technology centre in Cuba – right in Havana – allowing 40 people at a time access to higher speed internet.) In other Cuban cities – not just Havana – it’s not unusual to see people in town squares or small parks trying to get reception to use their phones, because those are where the wi-fi hotspots are.

Early on in my trip, I foolishly try using my cell, but it’s in vain. It pretty much hasn’t worked the entire time I’ve been here.

Except for this particular moment.

I fish it out of my backpack … and hear the message from my dentist’s office all the way back in Toronto regarding an upcoming appointment.

So in the most unassuming of casas, I’ve found the ONE solid pocket of phone reception, on the last day of my trip. So I do the first thing that comes to mind: I phone home.

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Still photos posted above are mine. Please don’t re-post without permission. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Throwback Travel: Oh, Havana.

**NOTE to READERS: The following post describes a trip which took place in March, 2016. I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible, but let’s face it – almost three years have passed! So bear with me.

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Saturday, March 26th, 2016.

It’s just after 9 a.m., and I’m outside the Hotel Inglaterra.

No, I’m not staying here. I’m here for a day tour.

I arrived the night before, after about 12 hours of air travel (from Toronto to Montreal, then to Havana – by way of Air China, believe it or not).

As the Rolling Stones played to thousands of people, I spent my first 90 minutes on Cuban soil waiting to see a customs officer, languishing in baggage carousel hell¹, followed by a really confusing trip to the currency exchange kiosk², and then getting some “help” getting a taxi into town.³

After checking in with the nice desk staff at the two-star hotel I was staying at, I rode possibly the smallest elevator on earth up a couple of floors to my room – a small box with curtains … But no window. (It DID have air conditioning, though …)

But, back to the present, and the search for my tour guide.

Actually, he finds me. His name’s Daniel, and he walks me over to my group for the day.

We start with a walking tour, across the street from the hotel in Cuba’s Central Park. It’s a fraction of the size of its New York namesake, but – from what Daniel says – apparently just as lively, depending on what time of day you happen to pass through.

Daniel’s super-informative as he guides us from park to park and square to square.

Initially, I don’t really speak to any of the other folks on our tour – mainly because I’m trying to absorb all the facts Daniel is feeding us.

2016-03-26 10.22.42It’s not until we take our first drink/rest stop – atop the rooftop patio of the Hotel Ambos Mundos, one of Ernest Hemingway’s apparent former haunts – that I get to make some small talk with some of the group.

There’s the cute couple from Ireland; a couple from Connecticut; and the trio of Brits who are in town for work related to the Stones concert, and are enjoying a bit of downtime before leaving. It’s always interesting how guarded folks are until you overcome that first hurdle of exchanging pleasantries.

After our break, we continue our walking tour until about 1 p.m., when part of the group leaves, while the remainder of us grab lunch.

2016-03-26 14.49.31Following our meal, our shrunken group piles into two shiny, old-school convertibles, which drive us over to Revolutionary Square, past neighbourhoods like Chinatown (not a typo; also, no real Chinese community here anymore), Miramar and Vedado.

Driving past the Malecon, we end up at La Torre, a restaurant/bar on the 33rd floor of the Edificio Fosca, which offers spectacular views of the city and the water.

The tour concludes, and I taxi back to my hotel, to collect my backpack and find the meeting point for my tour group.

In the hotel lobby, I have a pleasant chat with the young woman at the front desk, who tells me that her last name … is Campbell.

Not even kidding.

Apparently her grandfather was Jamaican – which, given how close both countries are to one another (plus, one of my half-uncles spent part of his childhood here), doesn’t completely surprise me.

Who knows? Maybe we’re distantly related. Even if we’re not, it’s just further proof that Campbells are everywhere.

My next challenge is finding my way from the hotel to the homestay where I’m meeting my tour group. I sit in the hotel lobby, trying to get my bearings before leaving. The map in my travel guide isn’t useful in this case. I try loading the map onto my phone. No dice.

So I approach my fellow Campbell, and ask her if she’s heard of the street I need to get to. She and another hotel staffer (helpful but permanently unsmiling) try to help and are stumped. Mr. Un-smiley steps outside the hotel and asks someone on the street. Turns out it’s roughly a couple blocks west of where I’m staying, near a church.

I’m directionally challenged, so I rarely get from A to B in one go. When I get near the church, I ask a restaurant doorman (with what little Spanish I know), and his directions are super-clear.

When I arrive at the homestay (or casa particulare), some confusion ensues. My name is on the list of trip-goers expected … but I’ve received a welcome note for another group embarking on a sailing trip. The casa owner’s son hoists my backpack onto his back and we walk down the street and around the corner to another casa, where I speak to the trip leader in charge of the sailing trip.

Turns out my group has been re-located and my trip leader’s busy picking up more people from the airport. Also, that second casa is only the home-base/meeting place for my group. So I move again, to a third casa just down the street. This room’s nice, clean … and again, has no windows. It’s not a big deal, but it throws you off at first. The curtains are a little comforting.

I return to casa #2 in the evening, thinking I’d be early. Several people are already there – two couples from Australia and a woman from Germany.

The German is the only person even remotely near my age – and she’s 28. The Australians are in their 50s, maybe early 60s, if I have to guess. From what little I hear, it seems the group is majority Australians, which makes me the lone Canadian (a label I’m used to).

The German traveller, named Jana, and I make small talk and head out to dinner. She’s from Düsseldorf, is a project manager at some sort of digital company and, it turns out, she’s already been in Cuba for a week – first in Veradero (where she says there actually weren’t that many people), and now Havana. From the sounds of it, she’s ready to hit the road and see some other parts of the country.

Over dinner, Jana relays her experience of how she ended up at the Stones concert (word of mouth apparently goes a long way), as well as how she managed to get back to Havana afterwards. (It involves a car with doors that didn’t close, and an engine that only ran if the car didn’t drive in a straight line.)

I’ve only just met her, and I already admire her ambitious spirit and her thirst for travel.

Let’s see what my fellow travellers are like.

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Photos in this post are mine. Please do not re-post without permission. 

1 I’m pretty sure our luggage didn’t appear for a good 30-45 minutes. And there were only two carousels, with the tiniest signs, serving hundreds of people.

2 I paced outside for almost 10 minutes trying to figure out what was open, before asking a man (who looked like a tourist operator employee) for help. He talked to someone who worked with security, and was directed to the front of another queue, with a cashier who was clearly over her entire day. She did help me as best she could, though.

3 The kind employee then helped me get a taxi – which meant I had to pay the security guy 40 CUC – and the original guy who helped me 10 CUC – in return for the assistance. (It was 11 p.m. so I wasn’t going to argue with either of them.)